Singapore’s Abstention from ILO Convention on Workplace Harassment and Violence

Parliamentary Question, 5 August 2019

Ms Anthea Ong asked the Minister for Manpower (a) why did Singapore abstain from voting on the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Convention on Workplace Violence and Harassment despite its comprehensive coverage; and (b) whether the Government plans to ratify the Convention.

Mrs Josephine Teo: The International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, also known as Convention 190, was adopted at the International Labour Conference (ILC) this year after two years of contentious negotiations. Adoption of a Convention by the ILO does not mean that all states will automatically ratify it. Among the Conventions adopted since the year 2000, few have been ratified by more than 25% of the ILO member states.

Singapore takes its treaty obligations seriously. We have a longstanding policy to only consider adopting or ratifying Conventions which are in Singapore’s interests and with which our laws and policies can fully comply. Where we have doubts, we will continue to study the terms of the Convention. We will also make improvements to our policies and measures that are aligned with the spirit of the Convention, if they also meet our objectives.

A good example is the ILO’s Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Convention, or Convention 155, which we ratified recently. Well before we did, Singapore took steps to strengthen our measures and successfully reduced workplace fatality rates.

On Convention 190, while we agree with its intent, there are concerns about overreach. For example, it proposes measures such as including domestic violence in workplace risk assessments. This would expand workplace safety and health well beyond the workplace remit. Reflecting the significant concerns on a variety of issues, one in three of all eligible ILO members — which include governments, workers and employers — voted against the Convention, abstained, or did not vote. One in three.

While Singapore voted to abstain for the Convention, we voted in favour of the non-legally binding ILO Recommendation accompanying the Convention, as it is aligned with our 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.

Today, employers must already meet the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, which covers grievance handling. Among other things, employers are required to respond promptly to affected persons and conduct proper investigations into complaints. Employers who need help may also approach the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, or TAFEP in short, for help to put in place processes to manage workplace harassment complaints.

In addition, concerned employees may also approach TAFEP for advice and assistance through its hotline, email or writing in. Where appropriate, TAFEP will refer cases to government agencies and partners, including the Police and the Courts. Egregious cases such as the outrage of modesty are punishable offences under the Penal Code, or can be taken up under the Protection from Harassment Act.

Ms Anthea Ong (Nominated Member): I thank the Minister for the comprehensive response. I have three supplementary questions. The first is, I understand ILO is made up of different tripartite members, but in terms of the states, there are only six states who have abstained. We are one, including countries like Russia, Kyrgyzstan, El Salvador, Malaysia and Paraguay, I think. So, pardon me if I got the countries wrong. I would like to ask, within the Singapore delegation of tripartite partners, who were the other partners and how did they vote? How many of these tripartite partners from Singapore voted for, against or also abstained, along with the Government?

The second question is, I understand there are some concerns with the Convention that we have abstained from ratifying. What are we doing in the meantime to get us to be more comfortable with those terms and guidelines that we are not yet comfortable for full ratification?

And the third question is if the Ministry has any plans to look at companies or employers being liable to create a workplace harassment-free environment. If companies and organisations are already liable for solvency, they are also entitled to protection against harassment in our recent Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), then I find it really difficult to see that they cannot be liable for making sure that the workplace is free from harassment and violence.

Mrs Josephine Teo: Mr Speaker, maybe I will take the second question first, what are we doing in the meantime. As I had outlined, we take practical measures. The employers are not without obligations. As I had mentioned in my earlier reply, the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices does impose certain requirements on the employers. If they do not know how to implement these obligations, we make ourselves available to help them. If their employees find that these measures that are in place are not sufficient, we are also quite happy to step in. And if there are certain instances where the employers feel that their employers did not help to resolve harassment at the workplace or even violence, we certainly will take a very serious view into rectifying this.

We collect data. TAFEP receives a certain number of complaints each year that are properly filed. A very small percentage has to do with 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, certain types of work arrangements. Those, we will follow up. I think that also addresses the third question: what are employers liable for.

Coming back to the Member’s first question, which are the parties that abstained or how did we vote, amongst the Singapore delegation. The Singapore delegation comprises of the Government, as well as our employers’ representatives and, of course, our Labour Movement. Because this Convention has been in negotiation for about two years, the positions of each of our tripartite partners in Singapore is well known to each other. The employers had very great concerns; not surprisingly, when the matter was put to a vote, the employers in Singapore voted against it. The employee representatives in Singapore, which refers to the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), voted to support 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.

Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang (Nee Soon): I just want to ask, moving forward, whether MOM will consider including in the tripartite standard, some guidelines on how employers can help employees who are facing domestic violence.

Mrs Josephine Teo: Mr Speaker, while I understand the Member’s concern about domestic violence, I think the question really, we have to ask is, whether the employers are best placed to intervene. I am not so sure that the answer is so clear for everyone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~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 — and volunteerism in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

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