Sunday, 29 April 2012

Pro-foreigner job ads top list of grievances

Discrimination against Singaporeans
But fair employment watchdog sees few cases of 'exclusionary practices'
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 28 Apr 2012

LAST week, it emerged that discrimination against Singaporeans for the first time topped the list of grievances that workers here have over unfair employment practices.

They outnumbered complaints about other sorts of discrimination, such as by age or gender.

But exactly what sort of discrimination do Singaporeans face in the workplace?

Giving the breakdown of complaints for the first time, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep), Singapore's fair employment watchdog, said that almost half the complaints received were over job ads by companies saying they would rather hire foreigners.

Tafep said that the second most common type of complaint - comprising about one-sixth of the total - involved foreign supervisors who would rather employ candidates from their own country.

Commenting on the first type of discrimination, Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) chief executive Phillip Overmyer said these companies are seldom justified in their actions.

After all, the fundamental reason multinationals set up here is 'because they know Singaporeans have the skills'.

But there are rare cases where a company might simply require someone of a specific nationality, he noted.

He cited the experience of an SICC member which was working on a product meant only for the Japanese market.

They needed someone very fluent in Japanese who would have a good understanding of how to develop, brand and package the product for that country - a role for which a Japanese national would be best suited.

Similarly, with the Myanmar market opening up, talent from that country would be very attractive to companies looking to go there.

'It doesn't mean Singaporeans aren't skilled, it's about different perspectives and what you know because of your background and how you grew up,' he said.

Executives interviewed by The Straits Times said they had sometimes seen behaviour akin to the second type of complaint - preferential treatment of employees of the same nationality - in workplaces.

One 26-year-old former analyst at a corporate bank said she felt that her colleagues from overseas shirked work, and would tell their bosses - who were of the same nationality - that it was too much for them to handle. The load would then be passed to their Singaporean co-workers.

'Yet in terms of promotion, these people were given priority,' she added.

The issue was brought up with the human resource department, to no avail.

Another senior engineer, who also did not wish to be named, felt his bosses demanded less of foreign employees.

His foreign colleagues also seemed to think that they could shirk work as the Singaporean workers would cover for them, said the 49-year-old.

On a more positive front, Tafep said complaints about 'exclusionary practices' - for example, eating separately or speaking a language co-workers cannot understand - were relatively rare.

Mr Gilbert Goh, who runs a support website for the unemployed called, agreed.

He said 'work politics that involve foreigners ganging up on locals' was not a common complaint in the 30 e-mail messages he gets a month.

Unions The Straits Times spoke to also said their members had not reported tensions between Singaporeans and foreign colleagues.

The Union of Security Employees said both groups had been working together in certain industries for 'a very long time'.

Still, some companies take the view that prevention is better than cure, with various measures to help local staff and those from overseas get along.

Aviva Singapore, where a fifth of the 570 workers are foreign, has social events - from pub quizzes to durian feasts - that let workers mingle across departments and nationalities.

There are even language classes where non-Singaporean employees teach their mother tongues to interested colleagues.

And to help employees who are new to Singapore integrate, an orientation scheme shows them around and introduces them to the local culture and laws.

The National University Hospital holds assimilation programmes to give new hires a flavour of Singaporean life.

It has courses which allow foreigners - who make up about a fifth of its 6,000 staff - to brush up on languages spoken here, such as English and Mandarin.

Both organisations received special mentions last week at the watchdog's annual awards for exemplary employers.

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