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AWARE and DPA: Employment Act amendments can do more to protect vulnerable employees

AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) and DPA (Disabled People’s Association) welcome the Government’s move to amend the Employment Act (EA) to remove the salary cap so that it covers all workers, and to transfer the hearing of wrongful dismissal claims from the Minister for Manpower to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT).

“These are important steps forward to extend labour protections to a larger number of workers. But a lot more can be done to protect vulnerable employees, such as people with disabilities, women, and those with caregiving responsibilities,” said Shailey Hingorani, AWARE’s Head of Advocacy and Research.

“Vulnerable employees experience discrimination at every stage of their employment - from recruitment to retirement/retrenchment - impacting their ability to care for their families, and to productively contribute to the national economy,” added Marissa Lee Medjeral-Mills, Executive Director of DPA.

As they stand, the amendments do not fully address such employment discrimination. A soon to be published DPA study found that companies and HR managers found loopholes to ensure they were not accused of discrimination.

“Companies who were not keen to hire persons with disabilities simply used the excuse of a mismatch in company culture,” said Dr. Medjeral-Mills Low-income women interviewed for AWARE’s economic security study recounted similar experiences of discrimination, and even dismissal.

“Mothers are forced out of the labour force for taking unpaid leave to care for their sick children and elderly parents, or because they are unavailable to work weekends since they cannot afford childcare. Unless they have a legal recourse available under the EA, they will continue to be penalised for caring for their families,”said Ms. Hingorani.

“Even after the proposed EA amendments take effect, including the transfer of hearings to ECT, the legality of several types of dismissals will remain unclear. In choosing to not define wrongful dismissal, the Government has left the door open for vulnerable employees to remain unprotected.”

Furthermore, the vulnerability of these employees also put them at high-risk of workplace harassment. Although the Prevention of Harassment Act (POHA) is meant to provide legal remedies for such harassment, its scope and access is limited. The process to obtain a Protection Order (PO) is expensive and complex, and breach of a PO is a non-seizable offence, meaning that police have no obligation to investigate or initiate charges.

“Instead of relying on POs, the Government should require employers to take all necessary and reasonable steps - such as formalising anti-harassment policies, and providing relevant, appropriate training for staff - to prevent and sensitively handle workplace harassment.

Many clients of our Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) who have experienced harassment at work have reported that their HR departments were not equipped to provide them with support. Some have left their jobs in the belief that their harassers will not be held accountable,” said Ms. Hingorani.

“Employee protection against wrongful dismissal and workplace harassment are basic tenets of any progressive EA. We urge the Government to recognise how discrimination, wrongful dismissal and workplace harassment hamper individuals’ chances to contribute to the labour force, and to build their own livelihoods.”

Read AWARE and DPA’s joint submission to the public consultation on the Employment Act review in full here.