Mr Speaker, like many of our fellow Singaporeans, including Parliamentarians and political appointment holders alike, we have all witnessed first-hand in the last few years, how transformational Flexible Work Arrangements or FWAs can be, for the better of both employers and employees. That is the reason why it has been one of the key proposals which I have been championing since I entered Parliament more than three years ago.
At the debate on the President’s address during the opening of Parliament, I spoke about how a key area of reform to build a stronger and more resilient Singapore society, is in relation to support for families. While I recognised then, that MOM will support employers to offer flexible work arrangements, I called on the Government to give employees the legislative right to FWAs rather than non-legally binding advisories, and for the Government to lead by example.
More recently during the 2023 Ministry of Manpower Committee of Supply debates, I shared in my speech that we had an opportunity to experience what it could look like to have FWAs, but I hope that my worst fears of a return to pre-COVID-19 workplace norms in Singapore will not come true.
I thus had a bit of a rude shock when in August this year, one of our Sengkang residents shared with me her own troubling experience with requesting for FWAs. The gist of it is that she is a mother of two, with one of her children requiring special attention. When she asked if she could retain her current flexible work arrangement to better care for her children, her boss quipped that her kids are not even dying, if they were, then the company can consider giving more flexibility.
While I recognise that such bosses could be a minority, and it may be line manager specific and may not be representative of the firm’s approach to FWAs, I find such attitudes and the whole, “if you are not in the office, how do I know that you are working” mindset very troubling.
Through this adjournment motion, I wish to reiterate my call for the Government to legislate the right to FWAs for all workers, and go beyond guidelines, advisories, and moral suasion.
FWAs: A silver lining from COVID-19
To begin with, the desire for work-life balance is a key consideration that weighs heavily in the minds of our workers, with over 50% of Singaporeans preferring work-life balance over a higher salary or job role, according to polling done by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in October 2022. In line with global trends, a LinkedIn report released in 2023 also noted that organisational support to balance work and personal life is one of the key priorities for employees in Singapore.
So, how do we balance things out?
A potential game-changer shone through the COVID-19 storm cloud as a silver lining, with companies adopting Flexible Working Arrangements (FWAs) as part of their business continuity plans to tide through the pandemic. By now, FWAs need no introduction, and could take a myriad of forms, including the ability to work from home on a regular or hybrid basis, compressed work schedules, flexitime such as agreed start and finish times within agreed limits and even informal flexibility on an as-needed basis. These may then be implemented according to the varying needs of the different employers and employees.
Post-pandemic, FWAs continue to be desired by our workers, as they can better manage their professional and personal lives. In a 2022 white paper by Randstad, 42% of Singaporean respondents would not accept a job that does not provide FWAs, while in a 2023 report by Indeed, 85% of workers in Singapore desire flexibility at work, significantly above the global average of 66%. Additionally, 34% of workers also revealed that they would quit their jobs if the flexibility provided to them is revoked, and while another 31% are not sure about it, they too might end up quitting.
It is thus clear that FWAs are a key aspect of talent attraction and retention at the workplace today, and FWAs benefit all workers.
The danger today – FWA reversals and resistance from employers
However, a fair number of employers are now summoning their employees back to the office post-pandemic. According to another Randstad survey in August 2022, 60% of respondents reported that their employers allowed them to work flexible hours, while 52% of them are allowed to work remotely. This is despite an overwhelming 94% of respondents who valued work-life balance.
A CNA commentary published in February 2023 suggested as much, with the title being, “After all this talk about flexible work, why are employers insisting on returning to the office full-time?”.
Based on statistics from the MOM’s Conditions of Employment 2022 report published in May 2023, it appears that the lifting of safe management measures meant the lifting of FWAs for a non-insignificant proportion of firms, where the proportion of firms offering at least one scheduled FWAs fell from 90.5% in 2021 to 71.4% in 2022, while the number of firms that did not offer any FWAs at all jumped from 9.5% in 2021 to 28.6% in 2022.
While the MOM is hopeful that “the provision of FWAs is likely to continue to remain high, above pre-COVID levels”, only 50.3% of firms indicated that they are likely to continue to provide FWAs in the next 12 months, with 33.5% somewhat likely and 16.2% of firms not likely to do so; suggesting that the proportion of firms offering FWAs will in all likelihood continue to decline post-COVID.
To be fair, the trends are not unique to Singapore and can also be seen in certain firms overseas. A 2022 Microsoft survey indicated that 50% of the business leaders surveyed plan to, or have, required employees to return to the office full-time.
After all, business leaders have a myriad of reasons – stemming from inertia and a conservative mindset – for dragging their feet when it comes to the adoption of FWAs in a post-pandemic workforce.
Such resistance by some still persists despite several studies showing that FWAs have been effective in driving up workplace productivity and improving employee well-being and motivation.
The MOM’s press release on 22 April 2022 presents such a dilemma, where even though the ministry hopes for FWAs to be a permanent feature of the workplace, its own recommendations in paragraph 4(c) stated that and I quote, “FWAs are not an entitlement and the requirements of the job take precedence”.
I can only imagine many employers saying what my National Service Encik would say when it comes to ‘welfare’ requests, “this is a privilege, not an entitlement!”.
The TFR crisis of generation(s)
If we need another reason to legislate FWAs, we need to look no further than the other aspect of productivity, where our Total Fertility Rate is now at a record low of 1.04 for 2022. If COVID-19 is described as the crisis of a generation, then our TFR issue is in my mind the crisis of many generations, given the steady and worrying decline in our TFR which could spell an existential crisis for Singapore and Singaporeans.
According to a CNA and YouGov poll published this year, 39% of respondents did not want to have a child as it would have an impact on their career and lifestyle. Many of the respondents that CNA spoke to also lamented that the sheer stress and workload from their job inhibits them from childbearing.
We may have enhanced the Baby Bonus Scheme by a few thousand dollars, raised unpaid infant care leave while increasing the number of voluntary paternity leave by two weeks, while ironically reducing the Working Mother’s Child Relief and making no changes to maternity leave which was last changed 15 years ago in 2008. But I’m not sure these new measures fundamentally address the tension between one’s career and one’s parental responsibilities.
I acknowledge the concerns the Government has around legislating for more leave. But we need to balance not just the short-term implications on the way companies have to redesign work processes, but the long-term implications on our nation should this issue persist.
Insufficiency of childcare leave
Take childcare leave for example, which many MPs have also spoken about. It stands at six days a year, regardless of the number of children one has. Yet based on ECDA’s guidelines, preschools can have up to six days of annual closure and three half-days on the eve of any of the five stipulated public holidays. A Sengkang resident of mine further shared that, there are eight full days and one-half day closure for the childcare centre she sends her children to.
So, without having our children fall sick, the existing childcare leave provisions are not even sufficient to deal with the scheduled school closures! And to this point, I am sure many parents with young children will agree with me that they fall sick too often…and as much as parents want to be socially responsible, not everyone has the flexibility at work to look after their children when they fall sick. Looking through my own records, I visited the paediatrician 20 times in just the last nine months! With MC durations ranging from three to five days, how can parents cope without additional childcare leave or FWAs?
FWAs a key enabler to bridge the gap
If the Government believes for some reason that giving parents a couple of days more childcare leave per year to look after their children, means employers will be facing severe difficulties, to the extent that their manpower costs and operations will be adversely impacted as described by MOS Sun last month, then FWAs could be the key enabler to bridge the gap between employers’ and employees’ needs. This could then help to cultivate an environment that enables parents to look after both their career and their children and reduce the tension parents face today.
Single parents’ needs
Single parents especially, would benefit immensely from having greater flexibility at the workplace. They bear a heavier burden as they must single-handedly juggle between their care and work commitments.
Therefore, FWAs such as flexi-shifts and telecommuting would certainly help to alleviate the burden that our single parents face, by allowing them to flexibly plan their work schedule, thus allowing them to find time for their children.
But regardless, we cannot expect incremental efforts to result in extraordinary results. We need to take bold and decisive steps and provide greater financial and non-financial support to Singaporean families, recognising that the stresses on families and the TFR crisis of generations, if not urgently addressed today, would have significant long-term socio-economic cost to Singapore.
Caregiving needs, an ageing population and gender roles
Besides parents, caregivers face the Herculean task of caring for their loved ones while trying to earn a living. According to a 2023 study of 200 family caregivers by the Palliative Care Centre for Excellence in Research and Education, the average caregiver holds a full-time job, and on top of that spends another 6.7 hours per day on caregiving! A Duke-NUS study in 2021 also pointed out that the disruptions to one’s work due to their caregiving needs correlated with increased stress and depression among caregivers.
In addition to seeking employers’ understanding of the heavy burden that caregiving carries, the ability for caregivers to better plan and flexibly attend to their work commitments would help to reduce the stress that they face. Furthermore, it would reduce any work disruptions as they attend to their caregiving responsibilities. This is especially important not solely because of our record low TFR, but also important because we’re facing a rapidly ageing population, and we too need to be allowed to care for our ageing parents and be there for them just as how they were there for us when we were children too.
The same 2023 study also suggested that the average caregiver is a married female aged between 45-60.
In my speech on the White Paper on Singapore’s Women Development, I noted that government policies play a vital role in rethinking and redefining long-held beliefs about gender roles in our society. While the Labour Force Participation Rate for women has increased over the years to 47% in 2022, this is still in contrast to that for males, which is at 77% in 2022.
FWAs would certainly help to facilitate a paradigm shift in how gender roles are defined by enabling more women to join the workforce or to restart their careers. Moreover, with the increased ability to manage both work and family responsibilities, and hopefully prevalence of more men taking on greater caregiving responsibilities, this could in turn further reduce the stigma of men as caregivers and normalise societal attitudes towards entrenched gender roles.
However, clear action must be taken to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their caregiving and family duties, and for workers’ performance to be assessed fairly, regardless of whether they take up FWAs or not. This would play a big role in helping to address fears of workers, particularly women at this point in time, on the downside they may face in taking up FWAs to take up caregiving responsibilities.
Although such deeply entrenched gender roles certainly require a reformation of our collective mindset, enhancing governmental policies – such as safeguarding the right to request for FWAs – would help to give us a leg up in our journey towards gender equality.
Enabling accessibility in the workplace
Besides parents and caregivers, Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) do stand to benefit from FWAs, especially telecommuting. For example, while efforts have been made to improve the accessibility of our physical infrastructure, it is significantly more convenient for our mobility-impaired workers to work from home, as they might require more time and effort in commuting to the workplace.
However, according to the Disabled People’s Association, individuals with disabilities have also commented that they fear accessibilities that have been mainstreamed during the pandemic such as work-from-home accommodations and other hybrid accommodations such as online meetings, will fade as Singapore recovers from the pandemic.
While I note that there are schemes such as the ODP Job Redesign Grant which helps employers to redesign their workplaces to make it accessible, the right to request for FWAs would help to elevate the careers of many of our workers with disabilities, whilst empowering more of the 65.7% of PWDs who are outside of the labour force to kickstart their own careers.
Moral suasion insufficient; enshrining FWAs in law is key
Despite the sheer demand for FWAs among employees and the multitude of benefits that it brings to all workers, and in particular certain groups of workers such as parents and caregivers and PWDs, there is no legal imperative for employers to offer them, as compliance with the Tripartite Standard on FWAs is completely voluntary.
Nevertheless, I understand that work has since started on crafting the Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangements, whereby employers must “fairly and properly” consider employee requests for FWAs when it is launched in 2024. While such a move is certainly welcomed, are there any ramifications to employers if they do not adhere to the guidelines?
Back to the case of my resident which I shared briefly at the start of my speech. She shared that while she was looking for another job that would allow her the flexibility to care for her children, many of the job vacancies required her to be in the office five days a week, and she felt that even those that were flexible, expressed concern that she was leaving her prior employer because of family commitments. “I was surprised we were going back to pre-Covid days”, she said.
While we should educate and encourage employers to fairly and properly consider employee requests for FWAs, it is incumbent on us as legislators to protect our fellow citizens against errant employers, through legislation.
We have adopted moral suasion before. The Tripartite Advisory on Flexible Work Arrangements was published some nine years ago back in 2014, and I quote, “The Tripartite Committee on Work-Life Strategy seeks to promote flexible work arrangements (FWAs) as a progressive employment practice in Singapore. Yet whether it’s called a tripartite advisory or the upcoming tripartite guideline, it was not until Covid did we really see FWAs take off.
There have been many jurisdictions that have passed legislation governing the right to request for FWAs or provide for a legal framework to support the rights of employees under FWAs. This includes the UK with its Flexible Working Act, Australia with its “Secure Jobs, Better Pay” Act and closer to home with the Philippines with its Telecommuting Act and Thailand with its “Work from Home Bill”, among others.
Even if ultimately the employer decides in a fair and transparent manner that this is simply not possible for various reasons, such circumstances can be addressed through the necessary legislative protections for both employers and especially employees.
If it truly is the case where all of us, the Government, legislators, employers, and employees are on the same page in terms of wanting to enhance the agility of our workforce and strengthen our social and economic resilience as a nation, then let us not shy away from making the right decision on legislating for FWAs for all workers.
Before I conclude Mr Speaker, let me say a few words in Mandarin.
Mr Speaker, let us take bold and decisive steps to enshrine flexible work arrangements in law, and send a strong signal to the world that our economy, our workplace, and our workforce are ready for the future economy.