Josephine Teo addresses MPs' concerns over workplace harassment, gender pay gap

(PHOTO: Getty Images)

Legislating the mandatory reporting of sexual harassment cases by employers to the authorities may discourage people from reporting their experiences, said Second Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo on Monday (5 March).

Speaking during the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) Committee of Supply debate, Teo was responding to Members of Parliament (MPs) who asked what recourse women who experience workplace sexual harassment have access to.

Among the MPs who spoke on the issue were Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Kuik Shiao-Yin, Nominated MP K Thanaletchimi and MP Louis Ng.

Thanaletchimi suggested that all employees be clearly informed of the procedures for handling workplace harassment, including how to respond to workplace abuse. She also proposed a mediation body that could address such matters.

Ng noted that Aware’s Sexual Assault Care Centre saw 108 cases of workplace-related incidents in 2017, a rise from the 91 cases seen in 2016 and 66 in 2015. He added that workplace harassment was a “common problem” that employees are “increasingly voicing out against”.

He suggested intensifying the promotion of the Tripartite Advisory on managing workplace harassment to employers, including setting up and maintaining a public database for employers to voluntarily declare that they have written policies to manage workplace harassment.

NCMP Dennis Tan said that the measures against workplace harassment as stated in the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) were “not prescriptive” and noted that the statutory board did not track how many firms implement the practices.

In response, Teo said employees can report incidences of sexual harassment to MOM, as well as to TAFEP. Employees can also seek civil remedies in court or report serious cases to the police, she added.

“Some employees prefer to resolve the matter privately without involving the authorities, but would rather report the matter to their employers,” said Teo.

“Legislating mandatory reporting by employers, as suggested by Thanaletchimi, will close off this avenue for such employees and discourage them from raising the matter with anyone. This is not helpful to them,” added the 49-year-old.

According to Teo, an average of 20 police reports involving sexual harassment or insults of modesty at the workplace were filed annually between 2013 and 2017.

Teo said that the Tripartite Advisory on managing workplace harassment, which was launched in 2015, reminds employers of their obligations in managing and preventing workplace harassment.

Last year, the MOM also launched the Tripartite Standard on Grievance Handling which covers workplace harassment. A total of 320 employers have adopted the standard, which covers 260,000 employees, she added.

Teo also pointed to the existence of the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM), a mediation body which can handle workplace grievances arising from sexual harassment issues. Another measure in place is the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), which was introduced in 2014.

Improvements in gender pay gap

Separately, the gender pay gap has significantly improved from 20 per cent from a decade ago to 11.8 per cent last year, according to a Labour Force survey by the MOM.

This was in response to NCMP Daniel Goh, who had cited a ValuePenguin study which placed the gender pay gap at about 18 per cent to 19 per cent from 2006 to 2016. Teo said that the ValuePenguin study did not make an “apple to apple comparison” as it included both full-time and part-time employed residents.

“More women than men worked part time to meet their family and caregiving responsibilities and naturally earned less,” she said.

“The remaining pay gap can be attributed to the fact that women are more likely to exit the workforce or have intermittent patterns of work for reasons such as childcare and sometimes caring for the elderly. If and when they return to the workforce as a result, they also have to catch up with their male peers,” said Teo.

“I think its still the right thing to do for us to enable as many women as possible to stay in the workforce, give them a chance to grow their careers and not to have to choose between family and work.”

The availability of flexible work arrangements might make the most difference to women by far, noted the Minister, who added that the “reality of (women’s) lives” is that they are still likely to face responsibilities at home on top of their work.

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