Navigating social risks in the multicultural business landscape
Organisations in Singapore are bracing themselves for a transformative shift as the Workplace Fairness Legislation (WFL) inches closer to becoming law in 2024. The WFL represents the republic’s move towards bolstering protections against workplace discrimination and harassment, ushering in a new era of workplace equity.
Jeremiah Chew, Director of Ascendant Legal, underscored the paramount importance of cultivating an inclusive corporate culture, especially in a multireligious and multicultural society like Singapore. Chew emphasised that as workplaces become increasingly diverse, the cultivation of a harmonious environment becomes essential to ensure employees feel genuinely welcomed and protected. He also believes that this commitment will yield tangible business benefits, including enhanced productivity and talent retention.
Chew also highlighted the pivotal role that the WFL will play in motivating organisations to proactively address social risks, and told HRM Asia, “It is hoped that the threat of enforcement action under the WFL, and the ensuing financial and reputational risk, will incentivise employers to take action. Under the current regime, the only real recourse for victims of workplace discrimination is to approach the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP).”
“The WFL will also seek to ensure that employees who report workplace discrimination and harassment will be protected from retaliatory actions by their employers. This provides assurance to employees that they can seek redress without fear of repercussions.”
To address concerns that the WFL may inadvertently spur litigation and affirmative action, Wilson Ang, Partner and Head of Asia Regulatory Compliance and Investigations Practice, Norton Rose Fulbright, explained that the legislation will institute a clear dispute resolution framework to filter discrimination claims through an internal grievance handling process, then mediation, and finally adjudication by the Employment Claims Tribunal as a last resort. He also emphasised that during mediation, the focal point will be on educating employers on best practices and facilitating the restoration of the employment relationship, rather than monetary compensation.
Regarding affirmative action, Ang assured that the Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices will uphold the principles of fair and merit-based employment. He offered clarification, stating that the preference for seniors and persons with disabilities will be a limited exception, purposefully aimed at addressing specific societal needs, and will not be expanded to encompass other groups.
Ang also outlined measures that organisations in Singapore can implement to manage social risks. He said while multinational corporations often adopt a consistent group-wide global policy, Singapore’s openness to more stringent standards allow employers to exceed legal requirements.
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He continued, “Employers also must take an active role in conducting regular training to educate employees and shape mindsets, as concepts of workplace fairness may be new to some employees. Key employees who are tasked with handling complaints in the workplace, such as HR leaders and senior management, should also undergo training on how to resolve workplace disputes amicably.”
“Importantly, organisations should implement a grievance-handling process and equip their HR managers to handle internal investigations or engage external counsel to provide guidance and advice. This will ensure that concerns regarding workplace issues are properly handled and resolved.”