‘Tudung’ issue: When do dress code policies signal workplace bias?

The controversial topic has resurfaced in Singapore

‘Tudung’ issue: When do dress code policies signal workplace bias?

Every year or so, heated discussions about the ‘tudung’ or hijab issue will come up in Singapore in both parliament and online spaces. This time seems a little different as the government hinted at a resolution for nurses who don the hijab but have had to take it off while in uniform. After unclear communications in parliament earlier this month, Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam said that the policy is under serious review.

“We can see good reasons why nurses should be allowed to wear tudung if they choose to do so, and I said this was being discussed internally,” he said during a community event. “And after that, our view – there is likely to be a change.”

He shared that the policy has been in review since last August when the tudung was last debated by politicians, reported local media. The government has been in ‘closed-door’ discussions with prominent members of the community, including Muslim religious leaders as well as unions, to make ‘careful considerations’ and reach a judgement. He said discussions are ongoing and may take a few more months before they announce a decision.

Read more: Is religious bias severe in Singapore workplaces?

Religious wear ‘generally allowed’ at work

For some context, the multicultural city-state has no issues with religious wear like the hijab, even in workplaces. They’re a common sight in Singapore and there are leaders who wear a tudung on the job, such as President Halimah Yacob and members of parliament.

So far there have been no obvious issues with companies or the civil service either, which is Singapore’s largest local employer. What’s more, employees are entitled to complain about biased practices to TAFEP if employers have ‘unreasonable restrictions’ against religious wear – and TAFEP have investigated cases over the years though the number of reported cases remains low.

The point of contention arises, however, within sectors that require a strict dress code policy, including healthcare and uniformed services like the police and various security forces. It’s a tricky issue to tackle because there are currently no clear policies around whether employers can dictate staff to keep it on or off at work.

The Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) longstanding guideline on any form of religious wear is this: they should generally be allowed at workplaces, unless employers have uniform or dress code requirements which are suited to the nature of work, or for operational and safety reasons.

In these cases, both MOM and TAFEP advise employers to communicate and explain the requirement clearly and sensitively to employees as well as job applicants. This is to avoid any claims of workplace discrimination.

Read more: More experience racial discrimination at work

How a dress code can lead to biased practices

The truth is dictating a strict dress code can lead to discrimination, especially when it edges potential employees out of a job opportunity or affects their ability to perform their tasks at work.

Take for example the case last August about a department store’s controversial dress code policy. A temp retail staffer was asked by an employee at Tangs to remove her hijab just when she was starting her first day on the job. Two other managers then told her that she couldn’t wear the scarf while on duty, explaining that it was 'company policy' and removing her hijab would be ‘for the sake of professionalism’.

Feeling insulted, the temp posted the issue on social media where it went viral. The person who employed her, an external partner of Tangs, called the policy ‘very ridiculous’ and discriminatory.

Soon after, community leaders including the president publicly condemned the biased practice, saying that employees should be assessed solely on ‘their ability to do a job and nothing else’. Following the backlash, Tangs quickly changed their policy to allow all frontline staff and contractors to wear religious headgear on the job.

Read more: President Halimah warns against ‘disturbing’ discrimination

Admittedly, the issue is trickier for uniformed services such as healthcare practitioners, where employers cite reasons like strict hygiene and operational requirements. However, it remains a policy that excludes qualified and capable employees from doing what they’re trained for, which is why without clear direction and resolution from the government, it’ll remain something fiercely debated in public.

The issue is made worse when community leaders give vague explanations about why the uniform policy is still in place, instead of feasible work-arounds, after over a decade of call outs and 'discussions'.

This year’s debate began in parliament when the government was questioned over the same issue. Masagos Zulkifli, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, empathised with affected employees, but explained that the uniform policy cannot be tilted towards any religious belief because the uniform shows that the service is rendered equally, regardless of race or religion.

“Allowing tudungs would introduce a very visible religious marker that identifies every tudung-wearing female nurse or uniformed officer as a Muslim,” he said.

“This has significant implications – we do not want patients to prefer or not prefer to be served by a Muslim nurse, nor do we want people to think that public security is being enforced by a Muslim or non-Muslim police officer. This is what makes the decision difficult and sensitive.”

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