In January 2020, the Ministry of Manpower in Singapore ("MOM") increased the administrative penalties for discrimination cases in the workplace. MOM also, for the first time, brought charges against a company in court for falsely declaring that it had considered Singaporean job applicants fairly before employing a foreigner.

Guidelines on fair employment practices

While there is no specific legislation prohibiting employment discrimination and enforcing equal opportunity in employment, there are non-binding guidelines such as the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices ("Tripartite Guidelines") and the Fair Consideration Framework ("FCF") which provide guidance on non-discrimination practices in the workplace.

The Tripartite Guidelines deal with employment practices including job advertisements, interviews, training and remuneration. The Tripartite Guidelines require that decisions are made on the basis of merits and that employees are provided with equal opportunity to be considered for training and development.

The FCF was introduced to reduce discrimination against Singapore citizens (as opposed to foreigners). The FCF applies only to jobs paying less than S$15,000 per month and in organisations with 10 or more employees. The FCF requires employers submitting employment pass ("EP") applications to first advertise the job vacancy on the national jobs bank,, and to fairly consider all candidates.

Raised penalties for discriminatory hiring practices

Although the non-binding Tripartite Guidelines are not legally enforceable, administrative sanctions may be imposed on employers who fail to follow them. For instance, under the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations, MOM may prevent an employer from applying for or being issued with a work pass on the basis that the employer has not made reasonable efforts to provide fair employment opportunities to Singapore citizens.

In January 2020, MOM updated the FCF and raised the sanctions for breaches of all discriminatory practices (including age, race, nationality and mental health condition related discrimination) in the workplace as follows:

1. MOM will prosecute errant employers or key personnel who make false declarations that they have considered all candidates fairly. Employers convicted of false declaration under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act will face imprisonment of up to 2 years, or fine up to $20,000, or both. MOM has recently taken stern actions against an employer who made such false declarations (see below).

2. The minimum period of work pass curtailment was doubled from 6 months to 12 months. For more egregious cases, the curtailment can be up to a maximum of 24 months.

3. While curtailment is used to mostly apply to new work pass applications, it may now also be imposed on work pass renewals.

As the duration of most work passes is two to three years, a 12-month curtailment would mean that one-third to half of the work passes cannot be renewed. For a 24-month debarment, virtually all of the work passes cannot be renewed, and the employer cannot hire new foreign workers.

MOM charged company for false declaration on workplace discrimination

MOM's investigations revealed that a Singapore logistics firm had falsely declared in an EP application that it interviewed two Singaporean citizens and considered local candidates fairly for the position of business development manager. However, the company had in fact already pre-selected the EP applicant for the role and had no intention to interview any Singaporean candidate.

MOM has charged the company in the State Courts in Singapore on 14 January 2020 under section 22(1)(d) Employment of Foreign Manpower Act for making a false declaration to the Controller of Work Passes in an EP application.

This is the first case where an employer is prosecuted for falsely declaring that it had considered local candidates fairly under the updated FCF.

Key takeaways

The recent changes indicate the Singapore government's continued efforts to deter workplace discrimination in Singapore and ensure that Singapore citizens are offered fair employment opportunities.