Speech by Minister of State for Manpower Ms Gan Siow Huang at Committee of Supply 2022
Ms Gan Siow Huang, Minister of State, Ministry of Manpower
1. Mr Chairman, I’d like to thank our GPC Chair Mr Desmond Choo for painting clearly the challenges that businesses and workers are going through.
2. Our workplaces have seen major changes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In these unprecedented times, we had to adapt and be flexible. Working from home, which was not so common pre-COVID, became the default mode of work for many in the last two years. As our workers navigate uncertainty and stresses during this period, the importance of supporting their well-being has come into even sharper focus.
3. My speech will focus on how the MOM team will uphold inclusive and progressive workplace practices so that everyone has fair opportunities to contribute and thrive at work.
B. Flexible Work Arrangements
4. Women have made significant progress in Singapore. The employment rate for women aged 25 to 64 has been growing over the past two decades, and continued to grow from 73.2% in 2020 to 75.1% in 2021, despite the pandemic. As we prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day tomorrow, we should take pride in the resilience of our female workforce in Singapore.
5. While there’s progress made, there’s room for more women to be active in the workforce. I participated in the nation-wide Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development last year. A key concern raised among women was the need to help caregivers remain in or re-enter the workforce. We recognise that women carry heavier caregiving responsibilities at home. To manage caregiving roles, some women work part-time, with reduced pay, or even leave their careers early.
6. I agree with Ms Janet Ang and Ms Yeo Wan Ling that one of the ways to enable more women to continue their careers is having access to flexible work arrangements. This can be in the form of flexi-time, flexi-place, or flexi-load. Flexible work arrangements apply to men too, and allow more balanced sharing of caregiving responsibilities between women and men.
7. The pandemic has underscored how flexible work arrangements can strengthen business continuity and resilience. As pointed out by Mr Yip Hon Weng, flexible work arrangements help companies better attract and retain talent. Flexible work arrangements also allow businesses to tap on a bigger pool of workers, including seniors and differently-abled workers, as suggested by Mr Sharael Taha.
8. Businesses recognise these benefits. In 2021, 73% of companies that adopted flexible work arrangements said they were likely to continue offering them post-COVID.
9. We applaud the many employers who have made the shift towards flexible work arrangements. Some have shown their commitment by adopting the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements. Adopters are recognised as progressive employers that have put in place HR practices for effective communication and implementation of flexible work arrangements. Today, 1 in 4 employees work in companies that have adopted the Tripartite Standard, and this coverage is steadily growing. The Public Service has taken the lead by adopting the Tripartite Standard. I urge more companies to come onboard.
10. I agree with Mr Edward Chia, Ms Janet Ang, Mr Sharael Taha, Ms Yeo Wan Ling and Mr Yip Hon Weng that we have made much progress in flexible work arrangements in the last two years and we must not lose momentum. Similar to the trend in other parts of the world, flexible work arrangements will become the norm of future workplaces. MOM will work with our Tripartite Partners to see how we can sustain flexible work arrangements, even as the Safe Management Measures are relaxed.
11. On the idea of legislating flexible work arrangements brought up by Mr Louis Chua and Mr Yip Hon Weng, we should be careful not to take an overly rigid approach that risks creating a litigious workplace culture with more disputes, or inadvertently affecting the employability of those we seek to help. For countries such as the UK and Australia with legislation that respectively provides employees and caregivers the right-to-request for flexible work arrangements, employers can still reject the requests on business grounds.
12. To create real change on the ground in the next few years, our priority is to help employers overcome barriers in implementing and continuing flexible work arrangements. For some, the nature of business operations makes it challenging to offer flexible work arrangements, and they lack the know-how to overcome these barriers. These concerns and hesitations are understandable, as different sectors have different needs and circumstances. As Ms Yeo Wan Ling and Mr Louis Ng have raised, work-from-home is not as practicable for most frontline work. Employers could consider other forms of flexible work arrangements like flexi-shift scheduling, staggered work hours and job sharing, which offer workers alternative flexibilities.
13. The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) has started training HR professionals to implement hybrid work and after-hours communication policies. Separately, the Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP) has developed a Playbook on Hybrid Workplaces to help employers and HR professionals implement hybrid work, as well as update their HR processes for fair appraisal of employees on flexible work arrangements. I encourage companies to make use of these resources that are available. We will be sharing more details on how we will ramp up provision of flexible work arrangements in the upcoming White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development.
14. It is important to build mutual understanding and trust between employers and employees. This is why, instead of taking a legislative approach for various workplace practices - such as flexible work arrangements, after hours communication, mandatory breastfeeding breaks – we first focus on equipping employers to find the right balance between supporting employees’ needs and business needs.
15. “Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your business.” These wise words are from Mr Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. I believe many employers here feel the same way too, and will support their employees’ requests if they are reasonable.
16. At the same time, employees need to demonstrate that progressive workplace practices help to improve staff morale, productivity and loyalty. Those who feel aggrieved and are not able to address their grievances within their companies may approach TAFEP for assistance and advice.
17. Members have also asked for further review of leave provisions. Mr Louis Ng suggested raising minimum annual leave entitlements, introducing parent-care leave, and increasing parental leave provisions, while Mr Gerald Giam and Ms Mariam Jaafar spoke about sick leave. We regularly review our leave provisions and acknowledge the real needs underpinning the Members’ suggestions. But increasing leave provisions should not be the default solution. We have been advocating for the adoption of flexible work arrangements precisely because they are flexible and able to cater to all the varied forms of individual needs. We should also recognise that there is a cost to increasing leave provisions, and we must balance this carefully against what businesses can sustain in order to avoid dampening jobs growth.
18. On Mr Louis Chua’s suggestion on a 4-day work week, members may wish to refer to the TAFEP’s website for information on how companies can implement such flexible work arrangements including policy templates on 4-day work week and case studies of companies that have successfully done so. Mr Louis Chua perhaps may also wish to consider implementing 4-day work week in his company or department too.
19. On the issue of sick leave for employees on short term contracts, we encourage employers to exercise flexibility in granting medical leave before the three-month mark. To attract manpower in a tight labour market, it is in the interest of employers to be flexible.
20. Ms Mariam Jaafar suggested that we do away with the need for employees to produce a medical certificate (MC) in order to take sick leave. The tripartite partners’ current position is that employees should produce an MC when utilising sick leave. This helps to deter malingering and maintain a more disciplined workforce. Nonetheless, the Employment Act does not prohibit employers from providing sick leave without MC, and companies are free to do so as part of their talent attraction and retention strategies. This pandemic is however an exceptional time. Tripartite partners agreed that employers should not request MCs from workers who test positive for COVID-19, so as to alleviate the stress on healthcare workers and avoid compromising the standard of care of other patients who genuinely require medical care during this period.
Expansion of Household Services Scheme (HSS)
21. Given our ageing population, challenges faced by our workforce in meeting caregiving needs of elderly family members will increase. Mr Yip Hon Weng and Ms Yeo Wan Ling asked how we could better support households’ needs for domestic services, including caregiving.
22. In 2017, MOM introduced the commercial Household Services Scheme (HSS), which allows HSS companies to hire more migrant workers to provide part-time home cleaning services. HSS workers are deployed to multiple households on a part-time basis to provide selected household services. This gives households, especially those that need domestic help for only a few hours per day or week, more options.
23. To better help Singaporeans balance their work and family commitments, we will broaden the scope of HSS to include basic child-minding and elder-minding services. Households will be able to engage services of HSS companies to look after their children at home or provide some basic assistance for their family members in activities of daily living.
24. Mr Yip Hon Weng and Ms Yeo Wan Ling asked about the safeguards that the Government would put in place to ensure HSS workers are qualified to provide child- and elder-minding services. Today, there are already private companies that provide such services. We will study the industry best practices as we expand the scope of HSS companies. MOM will also be conducting engagements with stakeholders, such as households and HSS companies to work out the implementation details over the next few months. We aim to implement the HSS expansion in the second half of this year.
C. Support for mental well-being in the workplace and Persons with Mental Health Conditions
25. I will now touch on our efforts to enhance mental health and well-being of our workforce, an issue that Ms Rachel Ong and Mr Melvin Yong had raised.
Support for mental well-being in the workplace
26. The Government has been working with our partners to roll out tools and resources to encourage companies to adopt mental well-being initiatives. For instance, the Tripartite Advisory on mental well-being at workplaces was released in 2020. Last year, the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council expanded the Code of Practice on WSH Risk Management (RMCP) to explicitly cover mental well-being. The expansion included examples on how employers can identify, evaluate and manage risks related to mental health at the workplace. This marks a significant step in recognising that workplace safety and health includes mental well-being, beyond physical injuries.
27. In 2021, we launched iWorkHealth, a free, company-administered survey to help employers identify workplace stressors and improvement areas. There is also an IHRP “Playbook on Workplace Mental Well-Being” to guide HR professionals to support their colleagues, as well as mental well-being talks and workshops by the WSH Council and Health Promotion Board that employees can attend at little or no cost.
28. We still have some ways to go ahead of us. Based on NTUC’s 2021 Special Report on Mental Wellness at the Workplace, 54% of employees were not satisfied with their companies’ mental well-being initiatives. The Government will step up our support to help organisations become more progressive in adopting mental well-being initiatives. We are studying how Employee Assistance Programmes, which provide confidential counselling services to employees, can be made more accessible.
Support for Persons with Mental Health Conditions
29. As raised by several members of the House, there is growing demand for support for workers with mental health conditions. According to a recent Singapore mental health study, one in seven people in Singapore had experienced a mental health condition in their lifetime. We need to strengthen employment support for persons with mental health conditions so that they are not excluded from employment.
30. Persons with mental health conditions may need flexibility in their work schedules to continue with therapy or counselling, while remaining in employment. For those who had to leave their previous jobs, or even take an extended break from the workforce, they may need help with the job search process. Agencies including the Institute of Mental Health, Singapore Association for Mental Health, and Singapore Anglican Community Services provide pre- and in-employment support to persons with mental health conditions and their employers.
31. Dawn is one of the individuals who has benefited from the support provided by the Singapore Anglican Community Services (SACS). Dawn’s bipolar condition started in her teens and she received counselling during her time in her university. A year into her first job, she suffered a relapse. She found out about SACS’s Integrated Employment Services programme, where she enrolled for training in conflict resolution, stress management, and personal effectiveness. With support from SACS’s job matching services, Dawn successfully gained employment in a full-time role. She has since remained in employment for more than two years.
32. Dawn’s story is a positive example of how some persons with mental health conditions manage to receive the right support. But we worry that some may not be referred to available employment support, and some employers through lack of awareness about mental health support and conditions, wrongly believe that it is too difficult for them to support employees like Dawn.
33. The National Council of Social Service is currently piloting an Employer Support Grant to incentivise employers to implement workplace adjustments for their employees with mental health conditions. We will study the effectiveness of the pilot and develop further plans to support employees with mental health conditions.
34. MOM will also work with other members of the Interagency Taskforce on Mental Health and Well-Being to strengthen the ecosystem. We will be engaging stakeholders and members of the public to get their views.
D. Workplace fairness
35. Finally, I wish to touch on workplace fairness, which Mr Sharael Taha, Mr Patrick Tay, Mr Heng Chee How, Ms Janet Ang and Mr Raj Joshua Thomas have raised. The pandemic has not stopped our efforts to foster fair workplaces. As announced recently, we have decided to take the very significant step of enshrining the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices in law. This move will help to manage longer-term anxieties over ageism, and provide better protection for vulnerable groups. A wider range of penalties can also be imposed on errant employers, commensurate with their wrongdoing. To this end, we must put in place a robust system to deal with claims, while keeping it efficient for workers and employers. The Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness is deliberating these important matters and continuing to consult widely. The committee will report on its recommendations in due course.
E. Concluding Remarks
36. To conclude, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many challenges and given rise to new stresses at the workplace. At the same time, it has created opportunities and stronger impetus for us to push for changes to make workplaces fairer and more inclusive.
37. In his speech, Minister Tan spoke about sailing our ship into an even brighter future. The MOM team will do our best to support employers and employees as they chart the path towards more progressive workplaces where everyone can thrive. Together, we can sail our ship sustainably for many years to come.