Public fumes after Singapore opted out of voting for global treaty on workplace harassment

Although Singapore supports the intent of a new global pact against violence and harassment in the workplace, it abstained from voting for it during a United Nations agency’s annual conference in June due to “concerns about overreach”, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

“This would expand workplace safety and health well beyond the workplace remit,” said Mrs Teo, while speaking in Parliament on Monday (5 August). She said this in response to parliamentary questions raised on why Singapore abstained from voting.

For those who’re unaware, the new convention, which has been adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), tabled measures like including domestic violence in workplace risk assessments.

Apart from the city-state, other countries like Russia, El Salvador, Malaysia, Paraguay and Kyrgyzstan also abstained from voting at the ILO’s annual conference of government, employers groups and workers held on 21 June.

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong asked how the Singapore delegation voted, and as a reply, Mrs Teo said the Singapore National Employers Federation “had grave concerns” but voted against the treaty.

On the other hand, the National Trades Union Congress, which represented workers, voted “in favour of the convention as a mark of solidarity for the spirit behind it, knowing full well that the Government was going to vote to abstain from it”.

Mrs Teo explained that Singapore views seriously of its treaty obligations, and has a well-established policy to “only consider adopting or ratifying conventions which are in Singapore’s interests, and with which (its) laws and policies can fully comply”.

“Where we have doubts, we will continue to study the terms of the convention. In the meantime, we will make improvements to our policies and measures that are aligned with the spirit of the convention, if they also meet our objectives,” the Minister noted.

As an example, Mrs Teo referred to the ILO’s Occupational Safety and Health Convention. She said that before ratifying the international agreement in June, the city-state had taken steps to strengthen measures and successfully reduced its workplace fatality rate.

Although Singapore chose to abstain from voting for the new treaty, it still voted to support a non-legally binding ILO recommendation accompanying the convention “as it is aligned with (Singapore’s) commitment to eliminate workplace violence and harassment”.

“We continue to partner the ILO to promote decent work and have put in place practical measures to eliminate workplace violence and harassment,” she noted.

For instance, “practical measures” are already in place, like how employers must follow the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices which includes grievance handling.

Apart from that, employers are also expected to respond quickly to affected individuals and conduct proper investigations into complaints. Data is also gathered through complaints that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) receives yearly, said Mrs Teo.

TAFEP will raise cases to government agencies and partners, as well as the police and the courts, where appropriate.

As of now, only “a very small percentage” of these gathered complaints come from workplace harassment.

“This is not to trivialise the concerns of those who did file the complaints, but in general, we do not have a pervasive issue. It is quite specific to certain employers and certain types of work arrangements. Those we will follow up,” she pointed out.

Serious cases like outrage of modesty are punishable crime under the Penal Code or can be taken up under the Protection from Harassment Act, said Mrs Teo.

Upon reading this news, many netizens expressed their anger with Singapore’s move to abstain from voting for the global treaty. Commenting on CNA’s Facebook page, they said that they’re “ashamed” of the government’s decision and pointed out that Singapore just made one step backward to be part of the other six countries which abstained from voting.

 

They also pointed out that the government is “trying to protect companies from getting scrutinized over such cases”, causing them to opt out from voting for the global pact. “The pack is to protect employees. Teo made it clear her ears are instead with employers,” said Facebook user Leandro Ngo.

However, Praisie Huang said that the reason Singapore abstained from voting is not because the government don’t see the importance of workplace safety, but rather because “the treaty involved issues like domestic violence which would mean the workplace has to get involved with people’s domestic life which is the overreaching part”.