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. Refusal may occur when a trade union already exists in an industry or occupation. 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 the majority of affected unionized workers to vote in favor of a strike by secret ballot, as opposed to the majority 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.
The government effectively enforced applicable laws. Penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denial of civil rights, such as discrimination.
Unions were unable to carry out their work without interference from the government. The law limits how unions may spend their funds, prohibiting, for example, payments to political parties, or the use of funds for political purposes.
Almost all unions were affiliated with the National Trade Union Congress (hereafter trade union congress), an umbrella organization with a close relationship with the government and the ruling PAP. Trade union congress 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 the private sector. Because nearly all unions were its affiliates, the trade union congress 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 matters. In July the trade union congress threatened to strike over concerns Eagle Services Asia, an aircraft maintenance and repair company, was not following the correct process for retrenchment. The company and union were able to agree on the retrenchment process, and the strike was averted.
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 and during the COVID-19 outbreak in migrant workers’ dormitories.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law does not define “forced labor,” but the government has accepted as law 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 charges than domestic servitude or bonded labor. Penalties included prison terms and fines, which were commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The government increased investigations of forced labor allegations in 2019 and imposed fines on some employment agencies for illegal practices. In January the Ministry of Manpower charged the director of San Tong Engineering Pte Ltd for illegal employment of migrant workers and failing to pay salaries and other charges. In view of the number of low-paid foreign workers in the country, however, outside observers believed that many cases of abuse were undetected.
Practices indicative of forced labor, including 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. Several NGOs reported that migrant workers did not receive their salary during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown in spite of government efforts to require construction sector employers to make monthly declarations on the payment of salaries to their foreign workers. The Ministry of Manpower acknowledged that some employers were unable to pay salaries owed due to financial difficulties but also indicated the ministry would work with them to provide for salary payment.
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.
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 age 13. A child age 13 or older may engage in light, nonindustrial work, 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 ages 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 were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. 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.
In addition, the Ministry of Manpower’s Fair Consideration Framework requires all companies to comply with the Guidelines of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (guidelines) which cover procedures from recruitment to dismissal so that all employment practices are open, merit based, and nondiscriminatory. These guidelines call for eliminating language referring to age, race, gender, religion, nationality, 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 of Manpower. There were no similar government guidelines with respect to political opinion, sexual orientation, or HIV or other communicable disease status. The Fair Consideration Framework was updated in January further to prevent workplace discrimination. Personnel involved in making false declaration on fair hiring may now be prosecuted and penalties were increased. Companies found guilty of discrimination may not hire foreigners for at least 12 months, and also may not renew work passes of existing foreign workers. In March, for example, the Ministry of Manpower fined Ti2 Logistics Pte Ltd for making false declarations to hire a foreigner in preference to citizens. In June the Ministry of Manpower introduced new license conditions on all employment agencies requiring them to comply with the guidelines.
The government effectively enforced the guidelines. Penalties were not commensurate to those for other laws related to civil rights but had a deterrent effect.
The guidelines prohibit questions on family status during a job interview. The government supported flexible work policies, although no laws mandate it, and subsidized childcare.
The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices received and investigated complaints of employment discrimination. In August the Ministry of Manpower announced that it had placed 47 companies on a watch list for engaging in discriminatory hiring practices. According to Ministry of Manpower statistics, reported cases of workplace discrimination based on age, race, and gender decreased from 240 in 2016 to 125 in 2019. In March the government barred five companies from hiring or renewing the work passes of foreign employees for age-related discriminatory hiring, the most common discrimination-based complaint received.
The Council for Board Diversity reported that as of December 2019, women’s representation on boards of the largest 100 companies listed on the Singapore Exchange was 16.2 percent, while women filled 25.1 percent of positions on statutory boards, and 27.8 percent of those on registered NGOs and charities, an increase in all industries compared to June 2019 data. In January the government reported that the adjusted gender pay gap had narrowed to 6 percent from 8.8 percent in 2002 but that occupational segregation continued.
Some ethnic Malays and Indians reported that discrimination limited their employment and promotion opportunities. Malays were prohibited from holding certain sensitive national security positions in the military.
The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices investigated a July allegation of workplace discrimination at a local shopping center. Employees at the shopping center reportedly told a part-time promoter to remove her hijab while working. After public pressure, the shopping center announced that it would standardize its practice to allow all employees to wear religious headgear while working.
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. The government, in consultation with unions and employers, has a progressive wage model, which sets wage floors and skills requirements for specific positions in cleaning, landscaping, elevator maintenance, and security services sectors. Employers must follow these pay scales as a requirement to obtain a business license. Most such wages were below the unofficial poverty line determined by the National University of Singapore’s Social Service Research Center. The government did not have an official poverty line.
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. Foreign domestic workers must receive one rest day per week. The law also mandates benefits for part-time employees, defined as those working 35 hours per week or less. The government effectively enforced wage floor and overtime laws; penalties were lower than those for similar crimes, such as fraud.
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 of Manpower and the law provides employees with the right to terminate employment without notice if the individual is threatened by a danger not agreed to in the contract. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.
The Ministry of Manpower effectively enforced laws and regulations establishing working conditions and comprehensive occupational safety and health regulations. The government took action against employers for workplace violations, including for nonpayment of salaries, serious safety violations, and abuse or mistreatment of foreign domestic workers. Penalties for violating these regulations–fines and stop-work orders–were commensurate with those for similar crimes. The number of inspectors was sufficient to enforce compliance.
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.). Throughout the year, the government investigated and sentenced several employers for abuse of their foreign domestic workers. In August a woman was sentenced to 21 months in jail and her husband to four months’ imprisonment for repeatedly abusing their domestic helper.
The Ministry of Manpower 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 that introduced hazard control measures. Workplace fatalities in 2019 were the lowest since 2004, when statistics first became publicly available, with 39 recorded deaths (1.1 per 100,000 workers). Nonfatal injuries increased by 5 percent to 629 cases (18.1 per 100,000 workers). In 2019 the government issued 58 stop-work orders for workplace safety violations with an average duration of six weeks and fined almost 1,000 companies a total of S$1,426,000 ($1,045,000). The government also enforced requirements for employers to provide one rest day per week or compensation for foreign domestic workers.
In September a court sentenced Tan Wee Meng and Lee Chung Ling to two and three months’ imprisonment, respectively, for negligence that endangered the safety of workers and resulted in the death of a Bangladeshi worker in 2017. The government also issued fines and penalties and closed businesses for noncompliance by employees with temporary COVID-19 safe distancing measures.
The Work Injury Compensation Act took effect in September. This law incentivizes companies to prevent workplace injuries by permitting employers with better safety records to pay lower insurance 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 Alliance 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.
Most foreign workers were concentrated in low-wage, low-skill jobs in construction, shipbuilding, services, and domestic work and were often required to work long hours. Living conditions for those workers were criticized after COVID-19 infections in purpose-built dormitories housing approximately 323,000 migrant workers accounted for more than 94 percent of the country’s total infections as of October 1. Public health experts and NGOs stated COVID-19 spread was accelerated by poor hygiene standards and the limited living space allocated to individuals in these dormitories. In response, the government used temporary COVID-19 legislation to declare dormitories with high infection rates as isolation areas, required workers to quarantine, and surged resources and support teams to dormitories. Freedom of movement for these migrant workers was restricted for more than six months during the pandemic and remained significantly more limited and controlled than for the rest of the population. In September the court fined Shaun Pang Tong Heng after he pleaded guilty to wrongful confinement of three of his Indian workers in an 11-foot by 14-foot room for 42 days during the country’s lockdown.
In June the Ministries of Manpower and National Development released a joint statement with short-, medium-, and long-term arrangements to improve living standards within dormitories and the Ministry of Manpower established a new division to support migrant workers and dormitory operations. NGOs advocated for structural changes to the work permit employment system in order to reduce the financial vulnerability and potential for exploitation of such workers.