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Speech at STF Conference On Fair Employment Practices 2013

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower , Senior Minister of State, Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel

Mr Stephen Lee, President, Singapore National Employers’ Federation (SNEF)

Ms Diana Chia, President, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC)

Mr Heng Chee How, Deputy Secretary-General NTUC and TAFEP Co-Chair

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

A very good morning to all of you,

  1. I am pleased to join you at today’s Conference on Fair Employment Practices organised by the Singapore Tripartism Forum (STF).
  2. Our changing demographic profile and globalisation have increased the diversity of our workforce. Today, it is not unusual for the person sitting beside you in the office to not only be of a different age, gender, race or religion, but sometimes also from a different country or culture altogether.
  3. Participating in today’s conference is an opportunity for stakeholders to understand diversity and inclusion at a deeper level. These things do not happen by chance. We need to work at it. Singapore is an example. Even though we have a multi-racial, multi-religious background, we have never taken the approach that it is completely natural. It is something that we need to weave together, work hard at on a daily basis because people, by nature, are all tribal in many ways. Even in management and leadership within the work space, it is something we need to consider looking at. We need to spend time thinking about it and discussing it in order to make the workplace work better.

    Two Objectives Must be Nurtured
  4. I firmly believe that as a people, Singaporeans are warm, open-hearted and welcoming. We are also pragmatic and very rational. We all recognise the need for foreign labour at the various levels. We appreciate and can understand why we do need to tap on the global talent and manpower pool because it ultimately benefits us Singaporeans. Why? Because it creates good jobs and opportunities for our people. We want to keep providing businesses a conducive environment with the vital resource, that is, people, in order for them to compete, to grow, and to do well. That is why they are in Singapore. Companies in Singapore continue to operate here for a host of reasons – of which having a diverse workforce is one of the attractions. When these good and dynamic companies are here, they create jobs and opportunities for our people as well. And that, at the end of it, has to be the reason for doing this.
  5. But even as we talk about enhancing our competitiveness, we do need to ensure that there are two objectives that need to be maintained even as we nurture the ecosystem.
  6. Firstly, Singaporeans should and must remain the core of our workforce. What we want to see and be proud of should be the fruit of our collective efforts to groom this competitive workforce from our Singaporeans.
  7. Secondly, we need to remain open; we need to be fair; and we need to be inclusive as a society - which means that we must make effort to engage and ensure that no groups amongst us – including mature workers and back-to-work women – are left behind. Opportunities must be created; platforms must be available to make sure that this is as smooth-flowing as possible.
  8. Achieving these objectives will not be easy. Even amongst the tripartite partners, perspectives held by the Government, employers, and the unions/workers on how to approach it differ. However, there is a consensus that underscoring all our efforts should be a collective will to work towards creating fair and inclusive workplaces. By the same token, we are also aware of the common challenges faced in this endeavour and that we need to take steps to address them. Let me elaborate.

    Challenge 1: Level Playing Field and the Singaporean Core
  9. Firstly, we need to make sure that there is a level playing field for the Singaporean core. Employers need to make a conscious and conscientious effort to ensure that fair consideration is given to Singaporeans in recruitment; and that these workers are given adequate development opportunities. But it really takes two hands to clap. Singaporeans, on their part, must also continually upgrade themselves and raise their game in an ever more competitive jobs market - within Singapore and beyond Singapore.
  10. Many Singaporeans have asked whether the Government should implement a framework that ensures employers give Singaporeans fair consideration when hiring. Some Singaporeans have vocally expressed their anxieties over perceived discriminatory practices in their work place, such as foreign managers hiring from their own home country. I would suggest this is not just perception but it is something that does happen. While we can put in place a system to ensure that employers have processes that give qualified Singaporeans a fair chance at being considered for a job, we need to be measured in this process as well. Clearly, something needs to be done. However, the question really is how far do we need to go; how do we calibrate it to make sure it is effective in achieving the desired outcomes.
  11. There are also calls for the Government to put in place anti-discrimination laws. I understand the arguments made in favour of such legislation and I fully appreciate the concerns that underlie these thoughts. Anti-discrimination legislation is one possible way to address these issues and we do not reject the idea entirely.
  12. But we should also note that having legislation is not a silver bullet that will solve all problems. The experience of a number of countries that do have anti-discrimination laws shows that legislation alone might not be adequate in changing mindsets. That is really at the heart of it – not just the practice; what we want is for people to really change the way they look at things; for employers to have a more progressive mindset. We cannot legislate changes in mindsets. Mindset change ensures enduring change. Employment relations are complex. Companies can fulfill the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. They can be very “creative” - whatever the regulations are, they know to find ways to get around it and technically, they may be right. So legislation may cure – and in fact may mask - some of these symptoms but it does not guarantee that we deal with the underlying problem. So that is why we take the approach that we do. Having said that, as I mentioned earlier, legislation is not something to rule out altogether. But we believe that in the present approach that we are heading, let us give it a fair stab and see how we can evolve over time.
  13. What we want is an approach that is effective, practicable and sustainable in targeting the root of the problem – namely discriminatory mindsets. This is the very premise of the current regime that is working for us. With the support of the tripartite partners, TAFEP adopts a moral suasion approach to tackle the issue of discrimination at the workplace. We believe that ultimately, this will be one effective way to shape employers’ mindsets and encourage companies to effect real systemic changes towards progressive and enlightened employment practices. At the end of the day, we should aim for a balanced approach which can serve Singaporeans well in the long run. We achieve this through the complementary levers of Singaporeans’ self-drive and initiative to keep up with the competition; Government efforts to level the playing field; and employers’ willingness to hire and develop locals, and to be fair in the way they treat employees.
  14. As part of the Our Singapore Conversation, my Ministry will be engaging Singaporeans in the coming weeks on how we can work together to better prepare our citizens for future challenges and demands. We want to hear what Singaporeans feel about the way forward - how we can enable and empower ourselves to achieve our various career aspirations. I encourage all Singaporeans to contribute your ideas on what skills and capabilities you need to realise your career dreams; how the continuing education and training system can better equip you with the skills and capabilities needed to stay competitive and relevant in the future economy; and importantly, what we can do to ensure a level playing field for Singaporeans at the workplace.
  15. At the macro level, the Government will continue to monitor and where necessary, put in place appropriate measures that will maintain this level playing field for our citizens. However, not all solutions will come from the Government alone - employers in Singapore have an equally important role to play. Creating and maintaining a working environment where employees are valued, feel included, and are treated fairly make business sense as employers will then reap the benefits of a more productive and harmonious workforce, which in turn attracts and retains talent.
  16. Many of us here have worked for bosses who looked after us; and those who do not. We know how it feels like but the question is, why are we not doing the same positive things for others? It is not difficult, or complex. There is a fair bit of room for the employers and businesses in Singapore to improve in this area. When we talk about productivity, I do not think it is just about automation, computerisation, or re-engineering work processes. A lot of it is has got to do with how we treat our people. If you are engaged and feel that the company that you work for values you as a person - not just a digit - and the bosses look after you, you will go the extra mile. Whatever new automation or work process put in, you would want to work harder and make sure it works because you want to – rather than just going through the motions. I would suggest that this is the heart of productivity as well but we cannot legislate or pass laws for it. Hence, we do need to encourage employers to realize this and to do certain things on a much broader basis.
  17. With or without legislation, discriminatory practices really have no place in Singapore. We expect all employers in Singapore to be fair and to comply with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices.
  18. In the past 3 months, my Ministry has investigated several employment discrimination cases. Where the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is concerned, where there are grounds to believe that the employer has violated the Tripartite Guidelines, they could, and some indeed have had, their work pass privileges curtailed. And there will be other measures that we can look at.
  19. I would like to point out that for the majority of employers in Singapore, it really does not need to come to that at all. It usually boils down to them paying more attention towards how hiring is done within the company, and to inculcate the principle of fair employment in all employees – especially line-managers and supervisors - across all departments. As organisational leaders, senior management should be especially mindful of the need for responsible HR practices and put them in place. Many employers are not paying enough attention to that. You should not wait till your company’s name is being dragged out in the social media before you start paying attention. It is in all our interest to make sure that we get our own house in order by making our people feel engaged and looked after. That in itself pre-empts a lot of issues and problems.
  20. While MOM will investigate and take action against errant companies, TAFEP will continue to work with employers and unions to promote the Tripartite Guidelines, and to explore ways to more effectively ensure fair employment for Singaporean workers. TAFEP, as a tripartite body, is in a unique position to advise on fair employment practices as it approaches the issues while simultaneously wearing the employer, employee and the Government hats. I understand from TAFEP that the response has been positive. Companies that have been approached have all responded positively and from TAFEP’s experience, employers in Singapore are generally supportive of upholding fair employment practices.
  21. At this juncture, it would be timely for me to highlight the progress that we have made in terms of gaining the support, and the collective efforts of the tripartite partners and stakeholders in this journey. Since 2007, the number of companies that signed the Employers’ Pledge of Fair Employment Practices increased from 600 in 2007, to over 2,000 last year. Let me be quite honest: Just because you signed the pledge, it does not mean that you are fair. I wish it was but it does not work that way. But at least by signing it, the employer is obliged to put into practice what he pledged. I think what it does really is to bring awareness. My own take is that actually, a lot of the times, we are just not paying attention to these things. Raising awareness by taking that step of taking a pledge, it is a reminder and in many ways a very public commitment. Hopefully as a result of that, it also begins to create pressure on yourself to begin to put in place some steps. Importantly, discriminatory job advertisements have fallen quite significantly from 19.7% in 2006 to less than 1% last year. These are encouraging indicators that more employers are seeing the benefits of pursuing fair employment practices and engaging a diverse and inclusive workplace as a strategic business imperative.

    Challenge 2: Embracing and Managing Diversity in the workplace
  22. Everyone has a part to play in creating inclusive, fair and harmonious workplaces in which diverse groups are embraced. For employers and organisations, managing such a diverse group of workers has become an important human resource issue. If diversity at the workplace is not managed effectively, the potential misunderstandings and conflicts of dysfunctional teams that can arise may compromise organisational performance. It is not just about the Government having the right policies to shape the environment, and to incentivise where it makes sense. As a society, we do need to change our mindsets and approach to these things.
  23. As employers, we need to be open to hiring based on merit, and to provide chances and opportunities for people. I would like to specifically highlight two groups of employees: Mature workers and back-to-work women. A recent media1 report noted that some companies are laying off older PMEs and hiring younger employees who command lower salaries to manage business costs. At one level, it might seem to make business sense. I think it is rather myopic. What is the signal to the rest of the workforce? They know at some stage, this is how the company regards the workers who have been loyal, and who have worked hard for many years, when they have reached a certain age. There is an impact on the company culture in the way your people look at you. For businesses and the economy to continue to achieve inclusive and sustainable growth, employers cannot overlook mature workers as a viable source of talent.
  24. Recent research by TAFEP and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, for instance, found that 98% of employers who hire mature workers highly value their knowledge and skills. 71% disagree that mature workers cost the organisation more money. The majority of employers surveyed further recognised that compared to younger recruits, mature employees not only brought greater experience, loyalty, commitment and stronger work ethic, but also had lower turnover and absenteeism. I am heartened by these findings as they suggest that the tripartite partners’ promotional efforts over the years in getting firms to reject these ageist mindsets and embrace more enlightened attitudes are bearing fruit.
  25. Beside mature workers, back-to-work women are also a group often overlooked by employers. The Government is committed towards remedying this situation and supporting businesses on this front. The Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) and MOM recently introduced WorkPro which helps companies attract and retain older workers and back-to-work locals. WorkPro helps employers put in place flexible work arrangements, improve workplace practices, and re-design jobs. I urge employers and companies to tap on this programme so that you can enhance your manpower strategies and workplace practices to be more friendly and inclusive towards these groups of workers.
  26. I recently read the findings of another study in which senior Singaporean women leaders shared their views on factors contributing to their rise to leadership positions. Also commissioned by TAFEP, the study – which I understand will also be shared later - singled out factors such as support from the organisation, and support from individuals around them.
  27. I am pleased to note that International Paradise Connexions, a local SME providing travel services, is one such supportive organisation as it had initiated its own programmes to tap on female talent. Besides offering flexible working arrangements, the company rewards every pregnant employee with a $2,000 cash incentive, and even provides them with dining vouchers so that they can swop pregnancy tips with fellow mums and mums-to-be over lunch! This photo shows one of the company’s employee, Mrs Cynthia Tan, receiving the cash incentive from the Director of International Paradise Connexions, Mr Rajkumar, 2 months after delivering her baby girl.
  28. Such self-driven initiatives spur the hope that it is indeed possible to change mindsets and get employers to do the right thing even without legislation or policy enforcement – as long as we are willing to play our part and lead by example in making our workplaces fair and inclusive.

  29. As workers and colleagues, we do need to open our hearts and we need to look at how to treat our fellow workers, our fellow Singaporeans, in a much more decent manner – to treat them with basic human dignity and respect. As we evolve as a society, we often talk and lament about how there is a regression in or lack of values. But society is made up of every one of us – not just employees, but employers. How we treat each other really reflects the kind of society we want to build. So the question is: Can we treat our fellow Singaporeans and fellow workers better at the workplace? Can employers be more supportive and empathetic in supporting flexible work hours for those who need them? For example, women who need time to look after their new-born infant; or those who need to look after their elderly parents. Or to be patient when you need to guide elderly colleagues who need a bit more guidance to learn the ropes or to familiarise themselves with technology.
  30. These things are within our means to do. Yes, companies do need to focus on the bottom-line, as all companies do. But does it mean that you need to lose your soul and spirit in the process? There are no law and enforcement that can change that, and force you to do it. If you want to disregard it, you can do so. But that is where we are coming at: We want to promote fair employment practices, and good management and leadership, which are part of the success of every company. At the same time, there will be legislation and regulation, and the other things that we will do on the Government’s part to also manage that space. But true changes come when mindsets change – and that is when cultural change takes place.
  31. On that note, I would urge as all of us as individuals, and as representatives of all your organisations, to seriously consider and listen to what will be shared by the various speakers. And think about what you can do at your workplace to begin that change; to create a place your fellow employees can actually look forward to coming everyday.
  32. To signal our individual commitment, we now have a way to share fair employment practices with all our family and friends. TAFEP has launched the Fair@Work Promise on Facebook – it is a personal promise to be fair and treat our fellow colleagues with respect. TAFEP has a booth right outside where you can also promise to be Fair@Work.
  33. I have also made my promise. This raises awareness and I hope all of you would join us as we try to move forward and really create not just a conducive place for business, but also build a “home”. A home is really about relationships; friendships; how we treat others as how we expect others to treat us. It is as simple as that, and how society should be. That is within all of us and I hope that all of us will be able to do that. Thank you.

1 PMETs make up majority of those laid off last year”, TODAY, 26 April 2013.