Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join trade unions. Workers have the legal right to strike and to bargain collectively. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination.
Parliament may impose restrictions on the right of association based on security, public order, or morality grounds. The Ministry of Manpower also has broad powers to refuse to register a union or to cancel a union’s registration. Laws and regulations restrict freedom of association by requiring any group of 10 or more persons to register with the government. The law also restricts the right of uniformed personnel and government employees to organize, although the president may grant exemptions. Foreigners and those with criminal convictions generally may not hold union office or become employees of unions, but the ministry may grant exemptions.
The law requires more than 50 percent of affected unionized workers to vote in favor of a strike by secret ballot, as opposed to 51 percent of those participating in the vote. Workers in “essential services” are required to give 14 days’ notice to an employer before striking, and there is a prohibition on strikes by workers in the water, gas, and electricity sectors.
Unions were unable to carry out their work without interference from the government or political parties. The law limits how unions may spend their funds, prohibiting, for example, payments to political parties or the use of funds for political purposes, and restricts the right of trade unions to elect their officers and choose their employees.
Almost all unions were affiliated with the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), an umbrella organization with a close relationship with the government and the ruling PAP. The NTUC secretary-general was a cabinet minister and four PAP members of parliament were in NTUC leadership positions. NTUC policy prohibited union members who supported opposition parties from holding office in its affiliated unions.
Collective bargaining was a routine part of labor-management relations in all sectors. Because nearly all unions were its affiliates, the NTUC had almost exclusive authority to exercise collective bargaining power on behalf of employees. Union members may not reject collective agreements negotiated between their union representatives and an employer. Although transfers and layoffs are excluded from the scope of collective bargaining, employers consulted with unions on both issues.
Foreign workers constituted approximately 15 percent of union members. Labor NGOs also filled an important function by providing support for migrant workers, including legal aid and medical care, especially for those in the informal sector.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law does not define “forced labor,” but the government used the definition found in International Labor Organization Convention 29. Under the law, destitute persons can be compelled to work.
The government enforced the law, although it was more likely to prosecute employers for less serious employment infringements than those of domestic servitude or bonded labor. Penalties included prison terms and fines, which were usually sufficient to deter violations. The government took law enforcement action against employers for workplace violations, including for nonpayment of salaries, serious safety violations, and abuse or mistreatment of foreign domestic workers. It also investigated and imposed fines on some employment agencies for committing other illegal practices. The Ministry of Manpower reported, for example, that in March an employment agency lost its license and was fined S$48,000 ($34,800) for advertising 49 foreign domestic workers on an online marketplace in an undignified light, as if they were commodities. Given the number of low-paid foreign workers in the country, however, outside observers believe that many cases of abuse were undetected.
Practices indicative of forced labor, including the withholding of wages and passports, occurred. Migrant workers in low-wage and unskilled sectors such as domestic work, hospitality, and construction were vulnerable to labor exploitation.
The law caps the fees payable by foreign domestic workers to employment agencies in the country at one month’s salary per year of the employment contract not to exceed two months’ salary, irrespective of the duration of the contract. Observers noted that unscrupulous agencies in migrant workers’ countries of origin could charge exorbitant fees.
Some observers also noted that the country’s employer sponsorship system made legal migrant workers vulnerable to forced labor because there are limited circumstances in which they may change employers without the consent of their employer.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits employment of children younger than 13 years. A child age 13 or older may engage in light work in a nonindustrial undertaking, subject to medical clearance. Exceptions include work in family enterprises; a child 13 or older may only work in an industrial undertaking that employs members of his or her family. Ministry of Manpower regulations prohibit night employment of children and restrict industrial work for children between 15 and 16. Children younger than 15 may not work on commercial vessels, with moving machinery, on live electrical apparatus lacking effective insulation, or in any underground job, and normally they are prohibited from employment in the industrial sector.
The Ministry of Manpower effectively enforced these laws and regulations. Employers who violated laws related to child labor were subject to fines, imprisonment, or both, penalties that were sufficient to deter violations. Government officials asserted that child labor was not a significant problem.
The incidence of children in formal employment was low, although some children worked in family enterprises.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution provides for equality in employment. No specific antidiscrimination legislation exists, although some statutes prohibit certain forms of discrimination. For example, employers may not dismiss female employees during pregnancy or maternity leave, and employers may not dismiss employees solely due to age, gender, race, religion, nationality, marital status, family responsibilities, disability, or medical condition.
The Ministry of Manpower’s Fair Consideration Framework requires all companies to comply with the Tripartite Guidelines on Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices and have employment practices that are open, merit based, and nondiscriminatory. These guidelines call for eliminating language referring to age, race, gender, religion, marital status, family responsibilities, and disability in employment advertisements. Employers are required to provide explanations for putting requirements such as specific language skills in the job advertisement. Penalties for violation of government guidelines are at the discretion of the ministry. There were no similar government guidelines with respect to political opinion, sexual orientation, or HIV or other communicable disease status.
The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices received complaints of employment discrimination, largely due to the preference to hire foreigners over citizens.
In January, President Halimah Yacob announced the formation of a Council for Board Diversity, which aims to increase the proportion of women on the boards of listed companies, public sector entities, nongovernmental organizations and charities. The council replaced a committee that focused on women’s representation on large listed companies. As of June the council reported that women’s representation on boards of the largest 100 companies listed on the Singapore Exchange was 15.7 percent, while women filled 24.5 percent of positions on statutory boards, and 27.4 percent of those on registered nongovernment organizations and charities.
Some ethnic Malays and Indians reported that discrimination limited their employment and promotion opportunities. There were also some reports of discrimination based on disability, pregnancy, and sexual orientation or gender identity. Pregnancy is a breach of the standard work permit conditions for foreign workers, and the government cancels work permits and requires repatriation of foreign domestic workers who become pregnant.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law does not specify a national minimum wage for all sectors of the economy. The government has set minimum wages in the cleaning, landscaping, elevator maintenance, and security services sectors as a requirement to obtain a business license. The majority of these wages were below the unofficial poverty line determined by the National University of Singapore’s Social Service Research Center.
The law sets the standard legal workweek at 44 hours, and requires employers to apply for an overtime exception from the Ministry of Manpower for employees to work more than 72 hours of overtime per month. Workplace protection including paid sick leave, mandatory annual leave, and protection against wrongful dismissal is available to all private sector employees, except domestic workers and seafarers who are covered under separate laws. The law also mandates benefits for part-time employees, defined as those working 35 hours or less.
The law establishes a framework for workplaces to comply with occupational safety and health standards, and regular inspections enforced the standards. Officials encouraged workers to report situations that endanger health or safety to the ministry, but the law does not specifically protect the right of workers to remove themselves from a hazardous working environment.
The Ministry of Manpower effectively enforced laws and regulations establishing working conditions and comprehensive occupational safety and health regulations. Penalties for violating these regulations–fines and stop-work orders–were sufficient to deter violations. The number of inspectors was sufficient to deter violations. During the year, the ministry continued to promote training to reduce the frequency of job-related accidents in high-risk sectors such as construction, and authorities provided tax incentives to firms who introduced hazard control measures. Workplace fatalities in the first six months of the year were the lowest since 2006, when statistics first became publicly available. This continues a downward trend in the number of workplace fatalities, although the number of reported injuries has been relatively constant. The government also enforced requirements for employers to provide one rest day per week or compensation for foreign domestic workers.
In September, Ong Chin Chong, the sole proprietor of a transport firm, was fined S$140,000 ($102,000) for a fatal accident resulting from unsafe lifting operations that he supervised. Authorities found that Ong used unsafe equipment and had not provided training for the men on how to perform their roles. Authorities also issued a S$60,000 ($43,500) fine to Unipac, the firm for which Ong was a contractor, and a S$160,000 ($116,000) fine to Sunway, the occupier of the worksite, for failing to ensure that lifting operations were properly conducted on its premises. Ong’s fine was the highest imposed on an individual prosecuted for unsafe working conditions, for which the maximum sentence is a S$200,000 ($145,000) fine, up to two years’ imprisonment, or both.
In September parliament passed the Work Injury Compensation Act, which will take full effect in September 2020. The new law incentivizes companies to prevent workplace injuries by permitting employers with better safety records to pay lower premiums, expedites the benefit claim process for workers, and increases the size of benefit payouts to injured workers.
The Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, which includes the Ministry of Manpower, unions, and the employers’ federation, offers advice and mediation services to help employees and employers to manage employment disputes. The Labor Relations and Workplaces Division of the Ministry of Manpower provided free advisory services to both foreign and local workers who experienced problems with employers; it provided mediation services for a fee. The ministry operated a hotline for foreign domestic workers.
The majority of foreign workers were concentrated in low-wage, low-skill jobs and were often required to work long hours in construction, shipbuilding, services, and domestic work.
The majority of foreign domestic workers, mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia, worked under clearly outlined contracts. Any employer of a foreign domestic worker or a member of the employer’s family, if convicted of certain offenses against the worker, such as causing hurt or insulting the modesty of the worker, is liable to a maximum penalty of one and one-half times the mandated penalty when the victim is not a domestic worker. Nevertheless, there were reports of employers abusing or mistreating such workers (see section 7.b.).