HIV-positive individuals in Singapore still face discrimination despite protective employment laws

Accounts shared by HIV-positive individuals reveal that discriminatory practices still exist in Singapore. — TODAY file pic
Accounts shared by HIV-positive individuals reveal that discriminatory practices still exist in Singapore. — TODAY file pic

SINGAPORE, Feb 3 — Two years ago, when John (not his real name) revealed to the F&B company he was working for that he had the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), he was terminated the very next day, via text message.

The grounds for termination: That he was not honest in declaring his health status when applying for the job, he said.

The 27-year-old, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2016, did not state his HIV-positive status when filling out a form during the job application process.

“As much as I want to be honest with myself and also to people, I realise that certain things you can’t be open about it, people are not ready to accept yet,” John said.

Another HIV-positive individual TODAY spoke to cited similar experiences, saying he constantly faces discrimination despite the laws in place.

Discrimination still alive despite laws in place

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) stated on Tuesday that Singapore has employment laws “to protect employees from wrongful dismissal, including on the grounds of HIV”.

This came a day after the Health Ministry (MOH) revealed that the confidential information of 14,200 individuals diagnosed with HIV, as well as over 2,000 of their contacts, was illegally leaked online.

In response to media queries, both MOM and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) said that employers should treat employees fairly and based on merit, and not discriminate against any employee just because of his or her HIV status.

“Employers should assess candidates based on their ability to perform the job. Therefore, if a candidate’s medical condition does not affect his or her ability to perform the job, the medical condition should not be included in the employer’s selection criteria,” a TAFEP spokesperson told TODAY.

However, accounts shared by HIV-positive individuals reveal that discriminatory practices still exist.

When marketing professional Ajmal Khan was working at an F&B outlet four years ago, he was not allowed to serve customers because he has HIV. 

“He (the manager) said, ‘because you’re positive, you stand in the back, you can’t serve the food.’ It was very strange. He said ‘it’s not you, it’s about protecting the customers. I don’t want customers to complain,’” recalled the 29-year old who was diagnosed with HIV in 2010.

Ajmal eventually quit.

Recounting another incident eight years ago, Ajmal said he had successfully gone through several rounds of job interviews at an accounting firm when, at the final hurdle, the interviewers asked why he was exempted from National Service.

When they found out that he was HIV-positive, his application was rejected.

The company also told Ajmal’s friend — who had informed him about the position in the accounting firm — of his HIV-positive status.

“(My friend) asked me about it and it was a very awkward situation,” he said.

Erman Tan, president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, said he had heard of instances where HIV-positive employees were asked to leave in “discreet” ways.

He added that the social stigma surrounding HIV makes it difficult for sufferers to get a job. “Sometimes, companies don’t have the policies to handle with these cases,” he said.

Managing director of Next Career Consulting Group, Paul Heng, believes that stigma and discrimination against HIV-positive individuals will not go away for a long time. “Out of 10 employers, maybe one is more enlightened and forthcoming in terms of treating these people as talent per se,” he said.

Are recruitment practices in Singapore discriminatory?

TODAY reached out to several companies in Singapore as well as the public service division (PSD) to find out about their employment practices and anti-discriminatory policies.

PSD said that public agencies are not required to conduct pre-employment screening if it is not required for the job.

“For candidates who declare their HIV condition, it does not affect employment unless the declared medical condition has a material impact on his ability to perform the job,” it added.

At Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, employees are asked to declare any pre-existing medical conditions for the purpose of medical benefits enrolment. “We do not specifically ask about HIV,” said the bank’s head of human resource planning Jacintha Low.

A StarHub spokesperson said that the company does not require job applicants to go through pre-employment medical examinations and that it provides all employees with medical coverage.

Social media giant Twitter said it is an equal opportunity employer, adding that it does not base hiring, recruitment, promotion, training and compensation decisions on “protected characteristics”, including one’s HIV status.

Recourse for HIV-positive individuals

Under the Employment Act, HIV-positive individuals who have been wrongfully dismissed can have their jobs reinstated or receive compensation from their employer.

“In the case of a unionised employee, the union may appeal to the Minister for Manpower under the Industrial Relations Act,” an MOM spokesperson said.

TAFEP said that it reports employers who breach its guidelines to MOM, “which may, in turn, impose sanctions, such as stern warnings and curtailment of work pass privileges”.

While MOM said that it has not received any past complaints or appeals against wrongful dismissal on the grounds of an employee’s HIV status, Action for AIDS (AFA) said it received eight complaints last year.

AFA manager Avin Tan said some of them were dismissed after their HIV status was leaked to their colleagues. 

While the advocacy group has an intervention mechanism in place, Tan told TODAY that many of those who called were just airing their grievances, and declined to undertake a mediation process with their former employer.

“We tell them we can intervene, a lot of them say no and let it die off, resigned that this is their life,” Tan said. “They are disenchanted and disempowered to take action.” — TODAY