Asia-Pacific employment law bulletin 2023
There has been a discernible trend in Singapore of conferring greater rights on employees for some years now, which accelerated in 2019 when Singapore’s Employment Act 1968 was amended to essentially cover all private-sector employees. We expect this trend to continue into 2023 and the years to come.
Discrimination and workplace equality
2022 already saw increased attention on discrimination-related matters, with specific initiatives, both in the public and private sectors, aimed at bolstering the rights of women and disabled persons in the workplace. In 2023, the key development to look out for would be the introduction of new anti-workplace discrimination legislation.
We expect this legislation to protect specific characteristics from discrimination, such as nationality, age, race, religion, disability, and likely gender. Specialist discrimination tribunals are also expected to be established. Once in force, employers will need to direct greater attention to interactions within the workplace – it will no longer suffice to just ensure that no discrimination happens at hiring and on termination of employment.
Increased scrutiny and enforcement
In tandem with growing employee protections, employers should also take note that enforcement and policing measures appear to be on the rise.
An increase in inspections by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) further to its ‘Workright’ initiative has been noticed. Intended to raise awareness of employment rights (through educational campaigns and media publicity) and ensure compliance with the primary employment statutes, the MOM can, of its own accord or upon being contacted by a whistleblower, conduct ‘Workright’ inspections to identify any breaches of law or regulations by an employer, and require rectification or impose penalties.
The MOM has also stepped-up enforcement operations concerning workplace safety and health (WSH) beginning from September 2022, in response to disturbingly high workplace fatalities and injuries (many in the construction sector, though the trend could also be seen across other industries) in 2022 as economic activity opened up post-pandemic. This increased scrutiny is expected to continue into 2023 and beyond. The MOM has already imposed harsher penalties where WSH lapses are found, and may now require company chief executives and directors to personally account for and be responsible for such lapses.
Gig economy workers
The Singapore Government has accepted recommendations to enhance the rights of gig workers (e.g. private hire drivers and food delivery riders). The stage is now set for the statutory recognition of a new interim class of gig economy workers – a class that sits in between the traditional classes of employees and independent contractors.
Legislation is not expected to be introduced until 2024, but employers in this sector should look out for announcements in this area in 2023 to prepare for the upcoming changes. What is already clear is that gig economy workers will receive work injury compensation protection, and a significant number of them will also receive Central Provident Fund contributions (Singapore’s mutually-funded social security scheme) – rights that are presently only accorded to employees. Gig workers will also be able to be collectively represented under new or amended legislation.
Immigration is a key feature of Singapore employment law, given that about a third of the workforce comprises foreign nationals. In 2022, Singapore’s approach to foreign employment changed quite dramatically. In the past, qualifying salaries for S Passes (for mid-level skilled staff) and Employment Passes (for foreign professionals, managers and executives) would be periodically updated. Moving forward, the qualifying salaries will be benchmarked against the top 1/3 of local salaries in comparable positions and sectors. Therefore, foreign talent was expected to be better than the average local talent, otherwise employers should look towards the local workforce.
A significant change will also take place from 1 September 2023 when new Employment Pass candidates must, in addition to meeting the qualifying salary, pass the new Complementarity Assessment (COMPASS) Framework. The COMPASS framework will assess both the individual (in terms of salary level, qualifications, and skills) and the prospective employer (in terms of nationality diversity, local employment support, and activities). The new framework brings clarity to the assessment process, but also signals the expectation on employers to support local employment and strategic economic priorities, amongst other things.
High level talent and executives should also take note that Singapore’s new Overseas Networks & Expertise (ONE) Pass was launched on 1 January 2023. Designed for the top talent across multiple sectors, the ONE Pass does not need to be renewed as often, and will critically also afford holders the flexibility of working for multiple companies in Singapore at any one time, in addition to allowing the pass holder’s partner to work as well with a letter of consent and without needing a work pass – flexibility not afforded by most other passes.
Kathleen Healy Partner
Stephanie Chiu Counsel
Fan Li Associate
River He Associate