1) Retention of Skills Foreign Workers 2) Update Employment Laws for Workplace Wellbeing

Parliamentary Speech: Budget 2019 Debate

First Budget Cut:

Regulating foreign employment agents (EAs) remains a challenge. Some local employers purportedly take a cut of recruitment fees which incentivises them to hire new workers instead of retaining foreign workers already in Singapore. This means that workers who have gained skills and experience and better socialised to our society are sent home, thus lost to our economy in favour of a continuous influx of inexperienced and low skilled foreign labour.

The problem is compounded by the short window period of 14 days to seek re-employment.

  1. Has the Ministry considered giving unemployed foreign workers who are already in Singapore an advantage for re-employment?
  2. Further, does the Ministry plan to take more resolute action against employers taking kickbacks from workers, whether transacted in Singapore or abroad?
  3. Finally, will MOM’s extend its regulatory reach abroad by introducing preferential processing and approval of work permit applications made by local EAs who have foreign tie-ups/operate abroad, and more importantly, can demonstrate ‘clean’ recruitment?

Second Budget Cut: Workplace and Employee Wellbeing

A recent 2018 IMH study[1] showed that one in seven Singaporeans experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. This means that an increasing segment of our workforce will have to grapple with mental health conditions while under employment. Further, 90% of psychological conditions in Singaporean adults have their root cause in workplace stress. Yet studies have shown that an overwhelming 86.5% of those employed do not seek help for their mental health difficulties[2]. What is perhaps most striking is that even as 72% of employers in Singapore consider stress and mental health an issue which affects productivity, only 51% have emotional and psychosocial programmes in place.

Members have now heard me share the above in this House that the MOM’s intent to recognise and promote employee wellbeing can be further served by enacting clear and deliberate provisions that are upstream and preventive in nature. I would like to take this opportunity to flesh out some recommendations I made previously, and make some additional recommendations:

First, that the definition of ‘wellbeing’ in all statutes, regulations and policies pertaining to employment in Singapore must expressly include not only physical but also psychosocial wellbeing. Accordingly, the relevant provisions in the Workplace Health and Safety Act, as well as subsidiary legislation, must provide for the psychosocial health and safety of employees at the workplace.

Second, workplace wellbeing begins with de-stigmatising mental health conditions and conversations.

In positive language, this means that we must foster inclusive employment practices. Such measures include prohibiting discriminatory employment practices such as compulsory declaration of medical history, especially for mental health conditions. That is, of course, until such information no longer prejudices a potential candidate. Ultimately, we are aiming for a employment climate that does not harbour misconceptions and prejudgments about applicants with mental health experiences.

Finally, I wish to address segments of the employment market which are more exposed to mental health risks, namely our differently-abled employees, low skilled workers, and migrant workers. Each group is vulnerable to different work conditions connected to greater psychological hazards — these include discrimination, higher risk of physical injury, and challenges in social integration. Will the Ministry allocate budget and manpower to look into the increased mental health risks present in such segments of our job market?

The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Manpower (Ms Low Yen Ling):

1. Chairman, preventing and addressing discriminatory and unfair employment practices are key to making workplaces more inclusive and progressive. I wish to assure Ms Anthea Ong, Mr Faisal Manap and Mr Melvin Yong that MOM takes a serious view of any form of workplace discrimination or unfair employment practices. Employers should abide by the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, which set out principles for fair and merit-based employment practices. Employers should not ask job applicants for information unrelated to the employee’s ability for the position, such as pre-existing medical history, including mental health conditions. Even as we constantly reach out to employers to educate them about the Guidelines, I want to ensure the Members that we will, and we have taken actions against employers who are found to have engaged in discriminatory employment practices.

Ms Anthea Ong:

1. Thank you, Chairman. Thank you, Minister. I am very heartened to see that more efforts are being made by MOM to promote more workplace well-being, like increasing the Work-Life Grant from S$30 million to S$100 million, and also the increased adoption of FWA. All these contribute to, obviously, employee well-being.

2. This may be more a question of updating our workplace health and safety to embrace total health and safety that includes psycho-social well-being because we are already doing it but the Workplace, Health and Safety Act is still very much skewed towards the physical health and safety. Could Minister please give clarification on that?

The Minister of State for Manpower (Mr Zaqy Mohamad):

1. At this moment, I think we have mentioned just now in my speech that, you know, we do a lot of promotional work around mental well-being so I am not sure exactly which aspect of workplace safety and health do you want to include that in but a lot of the work we do today looks at safety issues, occupational diseases. At this moment, I do not think it covers, mental health injuries or injuries that result in mental health issues and so forth. So, I think it is not there yet but it is something we will study in future. So, if the Member is specific in the areas that she thinks we could work on, we are happy to work with you and consult you on this one.

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Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities.

She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion, environment — and volunteerism in Parliament.

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.

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