Is the Employment Act sufficient to protect people living with HIV from discrimination?

With the recent revelation that the personal information of 14,200 HIV-positive individuals were leaked in a data breach of Singapore’s HIV Registry, discussions have been reignited about the struggles of people living with HIV in Singapore, particularly as it pertains to employment.

Chief Editor of New Naratif, Kirsten Han shared on her Facebook page about gulf between what the law states and what actually happens on the ground for people living with HIV.

In an article by the Straits Times, a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) spokesperson said that the Employment Act protects employees from being terminated on the grounds of their HIV-positive status.

“Singapore has employment laws to protect employees from wrongful dismissal, including on the grounds of HIV,” she says.

However, Singapore law does not expressly prohibit companies from asking job applicants about their HIV status. The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) says that HIV status should not be explicitly asked for in any declaration of medical condition and no one should be expected to declare their HIV status. SNEF adds that employees should not face any repercussion if they are found to have omitted declaring they are HIV-positive, as their HIV status should not affect their employability.

Unfortunately, this is merely a guideline that companies are not legally compelled to follow.

In response to queries by TODAY, both MOM and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) said that employers should treat employees fairly and based on merit, and not discriminate against any employee just because of his or her HIV status.

“Employers should… assess candidates based on their ability to perform the job. Therefore, if a candidate’s medical condition does not affect his or her ability to perform the job, the medical condition should not be included in the employer’s selection criteria,” a Tafep spokesperson said.

In reality, that is easier said than done. Even though the MOM says that people living with HIV are protected from being terminated due to their status, there is nothing to stop employers from terminating them for failing to disclose their status.

Today Online shared the plight of a person named John (not his real name) who said he was terminated via text message two years ago after the F&B company he worked for found out that he was HIV-positive.

The ground for termination that the company cited were that John was not honest in declaring his health status when applying for the job.

The 27-year-old said, “As much as I want to be honest with myself and also to people, I realise that certain things you can’t be open about it, people are not ready to accept yet.”

You see, the Employment Act simply protects an employee from ‘wrongful dismissal’. In the case of John, he was dismissed not for his HIV-status but for being dishonest on his job application.

But let’s assume John did reveal his HIV status to a prospective employer. Judging by the strong stigma still present in Singapore society surrounding HIV and people living with the virus, John is unlikely to get the job he applied for anyway. The company may not specify that his medical status is the reason they’re passing him up and it would be tough for him to prove it in Court as well.

So maybe we should shift the conversation towards whether or not employers should be demanding such disclosures from their employees and job applicants in the first place. Should a person be compelled to disclose his HIV-status to a prospective employer, even when it’s not material to the job they are applying for?

And in terms of tackling the stigma, we should do more to educate ourselves and society at large about HIV and AIDS. When we better understand what the virus is, how it’s transmitted and what it’s like to live in Singapore as a person with HIV, we can be better neighbours who defend the people in our community facing discrimination in any way, shape or form.