On Ending Workplace Discrimination in Singapore: A Panel Discussion by AWARE

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Workplace discrimination can occur in both overt and subtle forms, and is a problem when employees are treated differently on the basis of certain personal characteristics. As many of us are students in the final lap of our education journey—we will be entering the workforce soon—making this an issue we should be paying attention to. 

This year’s National Day Rally speech expounded on the topic when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that fair workplace treatment guidelines by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) will be enshrined in law.

Under the new legislation, employees will be legally protected against workplace discrimination based on age, race, religion, gender, and disability. The specifics of the law are currently being formulated by the government, and we can look forward to their finalisation in due course.

Building on this, representatives from the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), the Disabled People’s Association (DPA), Pink Dot, and Blackbox, came together on 28 Oct 2021 for a panel discussion titled “Fair Enough? Towards an Anti-Discrimination Law for Singapore,” which was moderated by Professor Tommy Koh, the Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

In the panel, AWARE Executive Director Corinna Lim, DPA Board member Cassandra Chiu, and Pink Dot spokesperson and committee member Deryne Sim weighed in on workplace discrimination relating to gender, disability, and sexual orientation, as well as how the new anti-discrimination law should look like. In addition, Blackbox Founder and CEO David Black shared the findings from Blackbox’s latest survey on workplace discrimination in Singapore. 

Image Credit: Blackbox

Being Disadvantaged as a Woman in the Workplace

According to Ms. Corinna Lim, cases of gender discrimination that occur in the workplace include maternity discrimination, workplace sexual harassment, and gender-based bullying. Even prior to entering the workforce, women can be subjected to unfair recruitment practices that altogether remove them from consideration for the job simply due to their gender.

After being accepted into the workforce, women can face sexism and sexual harassment. Sexism and sexual harassment are the third and fifth most prevalent types of workplace discrimination in Singapore, at 19 and 15 per cent respectively, according to the Blackbox survey. In addition, 22 per cent of women say they have encountered sexism in the workplace, while 20 per cent say they have been sexually harassed at work. 

When faced with such discrimination, women can turn to their companies’ human resource teams or even the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) for mediation. Mediation is usually the first step of recourse for such issues, and most cases are settled at this stage, shared Ms. Lim. If mediation is not successful in addressing the concerns and grievances of the victim and reaching a peaceful resolution, the victim may feel compelled to turn to other legal means for justice. However, as the burden of proof falls on the victim, it is very difficult for them to prove wrongdoing and win a discrimination lawsuit. 

As such, the new anti-discrimination law needs to be carefully thought out. “It is important that the process is a safe one for all parties,” said Ms. Lim. “The design of the law is really important. It has to be fair, accessible, and understand the power imbalances [such that any retaliation will be protected against]”.

Disability ≠ Lower Work Capability 

For discrimination based on disabilities, Ms. Cassandra Chiu shared that people with disabilities often battle with having to put their disability on their resume as it may unfairly influence reviewers’ perception of their job capabilities. Even if they do get the job, there are fewer opportunities for progression. According to the Blackbox survey, ableism makes up 6 per cent of the workplace discrimination faced in Singapore.

Data from the Comprehensive Labour Force Survey showed that on average, among persons with disabilities (PwDs) between the working ages of 15 to 64, only 28.2 per cent of them were employed in 2018 and 2019. The majority of PwDs are outside the labour force—68.2 per cent have cited disability as a reason for being outside the labour force and just 3.6 per cent are not employed but are actively looking for jobs.  

Even if it is not a debilitating issue, there has to be protection that will further raise the employment rates of PwDs, such as through fair hiring processes which evaluate applicants based solely on their objective ability to do their jobs and not reviewers’ beliefs about applicants’ abilities to successfully complete their jobs. According to Ms. Chiu, the new law should cover more opportunities for this group, be it at the recruitment, retention, or growth stage, and questions on disabilities should also be removed from the employment screening process.

“Second, [a] more sustainable and long-term [way] is to educate our people [on] what discrimination is and what is not acceptable at the workplace,” said Ms. Chiu. 

Discrimination Faced by the LGBTQ+ Community

Regarding the LGBTQ+ community, Ms. Deryne Sim explained that workplace discrimination exists due to Section 377A of the Penal Code—which criminalises “outrages on decency” between men—and the lack of coverage on issues that affect them by TAFEP. 

According to the Blackbox survey, homophobia and transphobia also constitute some of the most prevalent types of workplace discrimination in Singapore, at 8 and 7 per cent respectively. 

Employers may also discriminate against job applicants based on their sexual orientation, when they have knowledge of it. “It is considerably harder for [LGBTQ+ individuals] to get their foot into the door,” said Ms. Sim.  Even if they do get the job, they may be subjected to harassment or micro-aggression. 

“This needs to change [and] mediation cannot be the dispute resolution mechanism [in such cases as there may be unequal bargaining power].”

Towards a Fairer Workplace Environment for All

Ending workplace discrimination in Singapore can start with the new anti-discrimination law, but the devil is in the details—it remains to be seen how the proposed law will be a more effective way to stamp out workplace discrimination. For a fairer workplace environment to materialise, the support of all stakeholders in society will be required.

“Start small, in your own spheres of people, [and] help socialise your friends and family,” suggested Ms. Sim.

“Let’s be friends with people of different backgrounds. We can get to know them better, support them, and educate ourselves on equal opportunities [for all],” concluded  Ms. Chiu.

The workplace is an important area. It’s where the working individual spends most of their daily time, and the place in which we do the work to support our livelihoods and achieve our personal goals. Everyone should have a fair chance at achieving their full potential at work. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the conventional office structure by normalising remote working, such that many people may no longer be working in offices in close proximity to others. But unfortunately, that doesn’t mean microaggression and discrimination in the workplace will cease as they can still happen over online mediums. Hence, when we are working remotely, we will still need to know how to protect ourselves.  

As students going out into the working world, we need to educate ourselves and be more conscious about the issue of workplace discrimination so if we ever have the misfortune to encounter it, we can identify it and know what to do to further protect ourselves from it. For instance, if you encounter discrimination, do read up on your workplace rights and document the harassment as proof!

We can help in eradicating workplace discrimination within our own personal capacities at work, as well as know how to seek recourse if those around us—or even ourselves—have such encounters in the future.

When we have more empathy for those around us, we are bettering the experiences of everyone and contributing to making Singapore a truly inclusive place for all.