Parliament Tackles Workplace Discrimation, Health Insurance Claims and the Infuriating Increase in HDB Lift Breakdowns

parliament house
 
Here are some of the parliament questions that were filed in the last Parliament sitting (Note: we report the parliamentary Q&As as is as opposed to the MSM's abridged versions to help give you, our readers, a clearer idea on what is being done in the house in your name.)
 
Questions on Workplace Discrimination
 
Filed by Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar: To ask the Minister for Manpower (a) what is the current percentage of employers that have an inclusive or multiracial workforce; (b) what percentage of these employers have employment policies that proactively seek to have an inclusive, diverse or multiracial employee base; and (c) whether the Ministry requires employers to make a serious attempt to create an inclusive work environment, starting with their employment policy. 
 
Filed by Mr Zainal Sapari: To ask the Minister for Manpower (a) between 2011 to 2015, what is the number of complaints that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) have received on alleged discriminatory practices in the workplace; (b) what is the trend of alleged discriminatory practices by individuals, companies or employers which are based on race and religion; (c) what are the actions taken by TAFEP or the Ministry against companies where the discriminatory practices have been proven to have taken place; and (d) whether TAFEP is vested with sufficient authority to mediate or resolve discriminatory practices that are reported. 
 
Filed by Mr Zaqy Mohamad: To ask the Minister for Manpower (a) what measures does the Ministry have to respond to and investigate complaints of racial or religious discrimination at the workplace and in employers’ hiring practices; (b) what powers does the Ministry have in enforcing such practices and under what circumstances will the Ministry enforce its powers; (c) over the past five years, what are the trends of complaints from workers over discrimination and hiring practices; (d) how can the Ministry get more employers to embrace and adopt the values of diversity and inclusiveness in their employment policies; and (e) what is the level of awareness among workers of TAFEP’s role in handling discrimination at the workplace and how can this awareness be improved. 
 
Response: MOM takes a serious view of any form of workplace discrimination. We expect all employers to adopt the principles of fair and merit-based employment, in line with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices. In a survey conducted by MOM in 2014, two in three firms reported that they implemented fair employment practices. The majority of those who did not were planning to do so. 
 
To tackle complaints about workplace discrimination, MOM works with our tripartite partners through the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, or TAFEP. TAFEP, as the advocate and champion for fair employment practices, plays an active role in looking into such complaints and refers cases to MOM for investigation where warranted. 
 
Between 2011 and 2015, MOM and TAFEP received on average about 400 complaints of alleged discriminatory workplace practices each year. Less than 10%, or about 30, of these relate to race or religion. Most of them were about unfair hiring practices, including posting discriminatory job advertisements and asking inappropriate questions during job interviews. The remaining concerned in-employment issues, such as poor grievance handling and lack of sensitivity in communicating company policies and practices. 
 
Prior to 2014, TAFEP took an advisory approach in counselling employers who were involved in such complaints. They have all heeded TAFEP’s advice. Even so, we have taken stronger actions to deter workplace discrimination. Since then, 10 employers have received warnings for race- or religion-related discrimination; and another 12 employers have had their work pass privileges curtailed. 
 
While this twin approach of advisory and deterrence has been reasonably effective, we can certainly do more. MOM and our tripartite partners recognise that the key to eliminating discrimination is to spread this fair and inclusive message to all workplaces. TAFEP will step up its public education campaign to make people more conscious and sensitive in embracing diversity in a multiracial workforce. TAFEP will also ramp up training for HR practitioners to ensure recruitment and selection are based on the principles of fair and merit-based hiring, and publicise best practices in this area. 
 
Madam Speaker, Singapore is a multiracial and meritocratic society. We should not condone discrimination of any form, including race and religion, in the workplace. We can succeed in eliminating workplace discrimination when everybody plays his part. 
 
Reimbursements of Claims from Health Insurance Policies
 
Filed by: Dr Lim Wee Kiak: To ask the Minister for Health (a) what is the reason for holders of health insurance policies being required to pay first and be reimbursed later after they are discharged from hospitalisation even though they are fully covered by their insurance policies; and (b) whether the Ministry can look into streamlining the payment process.
 
Response: With the implementation of MediShield Life for all Singaporeans, we have streamlined our processes so that Singapore Citizens who choose Class B2 or C wards will not need to pay deposits.  There is an exception of a small number of patients, who will need to pay a deposit if they choose Class B2 against financial counselling advice so as to encourage them to choose the class they can better afford.  The public hospitals will also advise patients who need help with their healthcare bills and discuss with them options for assistance.    
 
For private patients who choose private hospitals or Class A or B1 wards in the public hospitals, their bills are much higher as they do not enjoy the heavy subsidy for B2/C wards.  Thus, hospitals may require them to make upfront payment, such as a deposit pre-admission, to cover their estimated hospitalisation cost.  Once the bill and the insurance payout is finalised, they will be reimbursed for any excess payments.
 
Even if the patient has private insurance, hospitals have no certainty over the patient’s insurance payout, given the range of private insurance policies with different coverage, terms and exclusions for pre-existing conditions.  Therefore, they may collect a deposit.  However, hospitals may waive or reduce the deposit if the patient’s insurer issues an upfront Letter of Guarantee to cover all or part of the estimated bill.  Today, all the six Integrated Shield Plan insurers issue Letters of Guarantee usually with coverage of up to $10,000, if the patient meets their criteria.
 
The Ministry of National Development answers questions on the spat lift breakdowns in HDB housing estates
 
Filed by Ms Sun Xueling: To ask the Minister for National Development what is the recourse for HDB residents where there are repeated lift breakdowns, slow rectifications due to shortage of lift parts, lack of qualified manpower to conduct repair works and the lift company has already been penalised for slow rectification but still fails to deliver timely and effective service. 
 
Filed by Ms Tin Pei Ling: To ask the Minister for National Development:(a) whether the Ministry will consider specifying a ceiling rate for lift breakdowns or a maximum period in which the breakdown rate consistently exceeds 0.1 such that the lift company that fails to meet the standard will be barred from operations; and (b) whether the Ministry will statutorily require lift companies to professionally train and certify their lift installation and maintenance workers before deployment. 
 
Filed by Mr Alex Yam Ziming: To ask the Minister for National Development:(a) what is the progress on the independent audit checks of passenger lifts by BCA;(b) what are some of the key findings so far; and (c) whether the Ministry will consider a new lift upgrading programme to help Town Councils replace older lifts that experience frequent breakdowns. 
 
Filed by Mr Liang Eng Hwa: To ask the Minister for National Development whether the recent spate of HDB lifts' malfunctions could have been prevented and whether there is an urgent need to step up the maintenance regime and audit checks to ensure high serviceability and safety standards of all lifts.  
 
Filed by Mr Ang Wei Neng: To ask the Minister for National Development whether the Ministry will consider (a) tightening the criteria of lift procurements; (b) embarking an open system specification, requiring potential lift suppliers bidding for HDB projects to facilitate use of common parts for their lifts; and (c) setting up a lift expert team in BCA or to better regulate lift maintenance companies and working with the industry to build up sufficient lift maintenance staff to service the lifts in Singapore. 
 
Filed by Mr Pritam Singh: To ask the Minister for National Development (a) what is the expected additional cost to Town Councils as a result of BCA's new standards on lift maintenance; (b) whether HDB will provide specific lift-maintenance grants to Town Councils as a result of BCA's modified regime; and (c) whether HDB will consider a subsidy or co-payment scheme for HDB lift parts that turn obsolete prematurely. 
 
Filed by Assoc Prof Randolph Tan: To ask the Minister for National Development whether the tightening of regulations for lift maintenance announced by BCA on 16 June 2016 takes into account the potential increase in demand for manpower in the relevant fields. 
 
Response: I understand and share the concerns raised by Members over the safety of our lift operations. Lifts are an integral part of our urbanised, high-rise living environment. Currently we have around 59,000 passenger lifts, with 24,000 of these in public housing estates, all of which are used on a high-frequency and daily basis. 
 
Lifts in Singapore are checked regularly and are safe to operate. But like any other machinery, they can malfunction from time to time. Data from the Tele-Monitoring System (TMS), which provides real-time monitoring of HDB lifts, indicate that there were around 20 breakdowns per 1,000 lifts every month in 2015, and in the first half of this year. This is lower than the average breakdown rate of 30 per 1,000 lifts each month registered in the previous two years – in 2013 and 2014. Let me reiterate this, because there are perceptions that there has been a sudden surge in lift breakdowns. This is actual data from TMS which all the Town Councils have – real-time monitoring data of HDB lifts operating in their respective estates. We compiled the data and the breakdown rates were 30 per 1,000 lifts each month on the average in 2013 and 2014, and it has come down to 20 per 1,000 lifts each month in 2015 and in the first half of this year. Nevertheless, despite the rates coming down, any serious lift incident is one too many. Furthermore, as our lifts get older and are subject to more wear and tear, they will face higher risks of faults. 
 
This is why BCA, as the regulatory authority for lifts in Singapore, has been focusing on this issue for some time and has been engaging the industry, consulting lift experts, and studying international best practices and standards, with the aim of enhancing the regulatory and safety regime for lifts. Let me share some of the key thrusts in our strategy and in the process also respond to the queries raised by Members. 
 
Our first priority is to raise our standards of lift maintenance. Currently all lift owners, including Town Councils, have to engage a registered lift contractor to service the lifts at least once a month. The lift contractors must also carry out an annual inspection and testing of the lifts, in the presence of an independent Authorised Examiner, who has to certify that such inspection and testing was done in accordance with regulatory standards, and that the lifts are fit for operations. This is the regime today. 
 
While these monthly and annual checks are being carried out today, BCA’s audits reveal that the quality of work can be improved. This is why BCA has recently announced measures to tighten maintenance standards for lifts. BCA will also step up its audit checks to ensure that lift contractors achieve these required standards, and to take enforcement action against non-compliance. The measures will be implemented this month. 
 
Second, besides tighter regulatory requirements, it is also important for lift companies to build up their capabilities and have competent technicians and engineers doing the work. 
 
BCA is working with the industry to set clearer requirements on the scope and level of training for all lift personnel. It is also developing a sectoral plan which will take into account the manpower demand in relevant fields of expertise, as well as the need for better defined career development pathways to attract and retain more skilled professionals in this sector. 
 
Third, we should continue to effectively harness competitive forces in the industry to bring about benefits to residents. There are around 8 main lift contractors who maintain about 70% of the lifts in Singapore, as well as many other smaller firms operating in the sector. 
 
All of these lift companies are free to bid for the installation of lifts in our public housing estates. HDB adopts a stringent procurement process which takes into account not just cost but also the quality and reliability of lifts. For new lifts installed in BTO projects and under the Lift Upgrading Programme, HDB imposes the requirement of not more than 1 lift breakdown per month per 10 lifts installed during the one-year Defects Liability Period (DLP). Lift companies that fail to meet this performance standard will be penalised, for example, through the imposition of liquidated damages, or debarments for future HDB tenders. 
 
Beyond this one-year DLP, Town Councils can decide whether to continue with the Original Equipment Manufacturer or switch to a third-party contractor. In this regard, Mr Ang Wei Neng had suggested that we facilitate the use of common parts for lifts so that Town Councils will have more contractor options to choose from. I agree with him and would like to share that the Competition Commission is looking into this very matter, to ensure that third-party lift maintenance contractors have access to essential lift spare parts. This will promote more effective competition, and will enable the Town Councils to choose the best contractor to do the job. 
 
Fourth, besides regulatory action by BCA, it is also important for Town Councils, as lift owners, to take responsibility and to carry out pro-active maintenance and cyclical replacement of lifts. 
 
For example, Town Councils can analyse the lift fault data from the Tele-Monitoring System and their records of residents’ feedback to identify lifts in their estates which may require more attention. Town Councils should also have qualified personnel within their management teams who can supervise the contractors, and work with them to put in place an effective maintenance regime. 
 
A more comprehensive lift maintenance and replacement programme will cost more. For example, with more rigorous checks over time, Town Councils are likely to draw more on their Sinking Funds to replace worn out lift parts or to carry out a complete replacement of older lifts. Town Councils must project and plan ahead, and ensure sufficient savings for long-term financial sustainability. That is why MND intends to require all Town Councils to set aside a higher proportion of their S&CC collections into their Sinking Funds and to ring-fence a part of the Sinking Funds specifically for lift replacement. 
 
Finally, Mr Pritam Singh asked about government assistance, and Mr Alex Yam also requested for an upgrading programme to replace older lifts. As I had explained in this House earlier, HDB is already implementing the Selective Lift Replacement Programme (SLRP) to replace selected old lifts with new ones that come with better safety and security features on a cost-sharing basis with the Town Councils. The SLRP is a once-off programme and we do not have plans to extend it further. The replacement of old lifts is the responsibility of the Town Councils and ought to be undertaken by them as part of their cyclical maintenance programme. 
 
However, for the existing lifts that are not due for replacement soon, we will look at the possibility of helping the Town Councils to retrofit them with key safety enhancements and features. This support for safety enhancements for existing lifts will require significant government expenditure. We are studying the matter carefully, and will announce the details when ready. 
 
To sum up, all of us, be it the Government, regulator, lift owners, contractors or even lift users, have a part to play to ensure that our lifts are reliable and safe. Over the years, we have put in place an effective operating and regulatory regime for lifts in Singapore. Let’s work together to make it even better and safer for everyone. 

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