If the results of a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) survey released earlier this year are any indication, Singapore has done pretty well when it comes to reducing workplace discrimination.
Of the roughly 3,000 resident workers surveyed, 8 per cent reported having faced workplace discrimination – a dramatic drop from 24 per cent in 2018.
And among those who said they were discriminated against due to their personal attributes, 3.7 per cent cited pregnancy, 2.1 per cent said it was because of their gender, and 1.5 per cent put it down to being mothers.
Clarence Ding, a lawyer from Simmons & Simmons who specialises in labour and employment law, said that instances of discrimination against women in the workplace have become less frequent in recent years. He gave several reasons for this.
“Firstly, a growing emphasis on diversity and inclusion initiatives within organisations; secondly, a genuine desire to facilitate top-down change, stemming from the increasing number of women appointed to top executive roles; and thirdly, a growing groundswell of employee activism and a speak-up culture,” he said.
But though cases are rare, female discrimination still persists, albeit in subtler forms.
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INSTANCES OF WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION
From his experience, Ding found that workplace discrimination against women in Singapore tends to be less overt than in some other countries.
“On the surface and based on our own internal review of companies’ policies and procedures, many of them acknowledge the need to guard against workplace discrimination,” he said.
However, he pointed out some practices that may still amount to female discrimination.
These include being passed over or held back from a promotion after going on maternity leave; being paid less than their male counterparts because that is the “market rate” for women; or being passed over for a role on the claim that it is physically demanding and the woman had expressed an unwillingness to commit to the job.
Ian Lim, TSMP Law Corporation’s head of employment and labour, pointed out that discrimination can also occur during the hiring process due to a woman’s marital status, pregnancy, or even just the possibility of her getting pregnant.
“With women who just got married, some prospective employers may assume they will likely be absent from work and on maternity leave due to their prospective pregnanices, and quite unacceptably be less keen to hire them,” he said.
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PROTECTIONS AGAINST DISCRIMINATION
Ding said Singapore does not have anti-discrimination legislation at the moment, though that is set to change as the government intends to enshrine existing workplace anti-discrimination guidelines into law.
“For now, existing protections vary from organisation to organisation depending on internal policies,” he said.
That doesn’t mean, however, that women have no other recourse beyond their company’s human resources or internal affairs department.
Lim said there are various protections that can be used to address different aspects of workplace discrimination against women, even if they were not intended specifically for that purpose.
“The Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) covers workplace harassment as well. Discrimination against women sometimes take the form of harassment, specifically notably sexual harassment.
“So for instance, if a man makes sexually suggestive jokes or comments to a female colleague, in addition to harassment that could also count as both discrimination and harassment because it’s unlikely he would have done the same thing to another man. Targeting a woman because of her physical appearance can ultimately be a form of discrimination too,” he said.
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Another source of protection is the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, which state that “employers must recruit and select employees on the basis of merit (such as skills, experience or ability to perform the job), and regardless of age, race, gender, religion, marital status and family responsibilities, or disability”.
“The Guideline includes marital status and family responsibilities because employers sometimes prefer to hire a single woman over a married woman, especially a newlywed who may want to start a family soon,” said Lim.
“This is not acceptable. The Guidelines have expressly stated that marital status and family responsibilities are irrelevant criteria in employment, as ‘jobs can be performed equally well by married persons, single persons and those with family care responsibilities’,” he explained.
Those who wish to lodge a complaint can do so with the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), which is empowered to carry out investigations.
Lim added that if a company is found to have breached the guidelines, it may be slapped with painful sanctions by MOM that could involve the curtailment of work pass privileges. If this happens, the company cannot then apply for new work passes or renew existing ones, for a period of time.
There are also the Tripartite Guidelines on Wrongful Dismissal, which specifically list discrimination as one of the grounds for wrongful dismissal claims.
A claim for mediation arising from a wrongful dismissal claim can be filed through the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management.
Lim said: “Mediation is a compulsory precursor but if mediation doesn’t work, you can then go to the Employment Claims Tribunals (ECT), which functions something like the courts but which allow claims to be heard more quickly and with less procedures, and don’t require you to have a lawyer.
“In fact, external lawyers are specifically not allowed to represent parties at the ECT. All these help make the ECT more accessible to the masses, more affordable, faster and less procedural,” he added.
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THE LIMITS OF PROTECTIONS
A big hurdle in reporting or raising a complaint of discrimination is proving it.
“It’s often not easy to tell if there was really discrimination at play. This is unless you have inside information, or can tell from clear circumstantial evidence – say if you applied for an internal role and you know that the person who ultimately got the job is of a different gender and eminently less qualified or suitable than you are,” said Lim.
Many people also prefer to avoid conflict and move on, rather than escalate matters.
Ding explained: “Discrimination lawsuits are still relatively uncommon in Singapore, since the time and cost of bringing a lawsuit is prohibitive.
“There is also a lingering fear that bringing a claim against a company may cast the woman in a negative light, painting her as a troublemaker and hampering her future employment prospects.”
Even the prospective anti-discrimination law that’s in the works may not be the panacea to discriminatory behaviour against women in the workplace.
“The law is likely to follow the current provisions of the Tripartite Guidelines, which is a good starting point because they cover things like hiring based on merit, equal opportunity and fair reward,” said Ding. “But the Guidelines do not address discrimination against women per se, so it remains to be seen if the government will specifically legislate to provide for that.”
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE BEING DISCRIMINATED AGAINST
“If a woman feels she is being discriminated against in the workplace, a good lawyer should be the first port of call. That way, she can be advised of her rights and the options available to her, such as using internal company procedure to raise the grievance and seek remediation, or lodging a complaint against the company with TAFEP,” said Ding.
In addition, he said, all interactions with the company should be documented, and the complainant should be prepared to back up her allegations with contemporaneous evidence as far as possible.
“In a court of law, there is nothing weaker than a baseless or unsubstantiated allegation,” he said, citing a case where a woman made egregious allegations of bullying and harassment against an MNC, only to have the entire case struck out because she could not substantiate her claims or provide specifics.
Lim advises saving all forms of written communications that may help to prove discrimination.
“Some people think that evidence has to be in the form of letters or official documents, but emails are more than sufficient. Even text and WhatsApp messages can count as written evidence,” he said.
Recordings count too, though he said there is a concern these may run into issues of personal data protection.
Ultimately, it comes down to taking action against discrimination and speaking up.
“It is a common misconception that nothing can be done, that things are what they are and you either tolerate it or resign. And some people feel that nothing will be done even if they do report it. This fatalistic approach remains quite prevalent,” said Lim.
“Many people also think that going to a lawyer should be the last resort, when the truth is seeing a lawyer earlier could have helped. What they don’t realise is that lawyers can help them draft email correspondence without necessarily ever needing to surface in the matter.
“Even if it’s just an email, the lawyer can help you structure it and strategise your approach, or phrase things in a way you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. This can help you advance your case rather than compromise it,” he said.
Do note that this article should not be construed as legal advice.