Response by 2M Indranee Rajah to Mr Louis Ng's Adjournment Motion on "Supporting Breastfeeding Mothers in Workplaces"

May 10, 2024

Mr Speaker, I thank Mr Louis Ng for his support for breastfeeding mothers and his suggestions to improve workplace conditions for them.

Women are a crucial part of the workforce and it is important that workplaces cater to their needs. For many mothers who have recently given birth, the transition back to work can be challenging, as they have to care for their babies while managing their work responsibilities.

Medical research has highlighted the benefits of breast milk for babies. As Mr Ng has pointed out, the number of mothers choosing to breastfeed is increasing with some mothers continuing to do so even after returning to work.

Given that women form a significant part of our workforce and many continue working even after childbirth, it is important that our workplaces are supportive of mothers. This is especially so in light of our low total fertility rate (TFR). Our workplaces can support mothers by providing a clean and conducive environment for breastfeeding mothers to express milk, so they can meet their babies' needs, even as they resume work.

As mentioned in my reply to Mr Ng's last Adjournment Motion on this topic, we have progressively introduced measures over the years to support breastfeeding mothers.

We conducted substantive reviews of the Code on Accessibility in the Built Environment in 2013 and 2019. The 2013 Code review introduced the requirement for specific building types, starting with developments, such as transport interchanges, sports complexes, community clubs and large-scale shopping centres, to provide at least one lactation room. After another review in 2019, this requirement was extended to more building types, including offices and business parks.

We also enhanced the Accessibility Fund (AF) in 2022 to cover more buildings. The AF co-funds the construction cost of accessibility features, including lactation rooms, to encourage building owners and employers to install them.

In 2022, we expanded the scope of the AF to two additional categories of private sector buildings. First, buildings that were built before 1990 and were already equipped with basic accessibility features. Second, buildings which were built after 1990, but before the implementation of the 2013 Code and which provided fewer accessibility features than required under the pre-2013 Code.

The Government will continue to support breastfeeding mothers in two key areas. First, by reviewing the relevant legislation and incentives for the provision of lactation facilities; and second, by promoting an inclusive, supportive work culture for breastfeeding mothers.

The latest Code review is already underway. The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) has formed a Code Review Committee, comprising public and private sector stakeholders, with representation from 15 organisations, including social service agencies, industry associations and Government agencies. BCA aims to commence public consultation on the enhanced Code by end 2024.

A key focus of the review is on lactation rooms. I thank the Breastfeeding Mothers' Support Group and the Association for Breastfeeding Advocacy for actively participating in the Code Review Committee's focus group discussion. Their frank and generous sharing of their experiences has enabled the Committee to better understand the needs of and the challenges faced by breastfeeding mothers.

The current Code requires buildings, such as offices and business parks, with 10,000 square metres or more in Gross Floor Area (GFA) to provide at least one lactation room. We are encouraged that several progressive building owners and employers have provided lactation rooms beyond these minimum requirements. JEM and CapitaSpring are examples of larger developments that have voluntarily provided more than one lactation room. Some developments with GFA of less than 10,000 square metres, including some hawker centres, have also provided lactation rooms voluntarily.

Nonetheless, we agree that there is scope to lower the GFA thresholds in the Code for the installation of lactation rooms in offices and business parks and to consider requiring larger buildings to install more lactation rooms. I wish to reassure Mr Louis Ng that the Committee is studying this issue carefully. We need to take a calibrated and balanced approach, bearing in mind the other competing needs for space within developments and the constraints of smaller developments. The Committee will consider these issues when making its recommendations on the GFA thresholds for lactation rooms.

In the meantime, I wish to highlight that specially constructed lactation rooms are not the only solution to meeting breastfeeding mothers' need for private space. Lactation pods are a viable alternative for owners of or employers in buildings with lower GFA or with configuration constraints. These pods are commercially available for purchase or lease and the pod exterior can be customised to align with the office branding or décor. I urge employers in and owners of smaller buildings or buildings with limited space to consider installing lactation pods. The Accessibility Fund can be tapped on to co-fund lactation pods.

But beyond just providing lactation rooms, it is important that lactation rooms are sufficiently equipped to meet the needs of breastfeeding mothers, as Mr Ng has pointed out.

The Code currently recommends a list of items that all lactation rooms should be equipped with. We note Mr Ng's suggestions for more items to be added to the list. Moving forward, we can consider making some essential features of a lactation room mandatory. For instance, privacy, easy access and access to electricity.

At the same time, we must be mindful about striking the right balance. Employers and building owners need also sufficient flexibility in determining how to address the needs of other building users. For instance, they may wish to site loose fixtures and appliances, such as water dispensers in common locations like pantries. Modalities may differ from site to site, but what matters is that there is thoughtful provision of facilities to meet employees' needs, including those of breastfeeding mothers.

The Code Review Committee will continue to assess this and continue to gather data to refine its proposed enhancements to the Code. I encourage our industry stakeholders and our advocacy groups to continue providing feedback, to help us shape a more accessible and inclusive built environment.

We also note Mr Ng's recommendation to increase the co-funding amount under the Accessibility Fund to meet the construction cost of lactation rooms. We will consider this following the completion of the Code review.

Mr Speaker, the provision of lactation rooms or pods is but one aspect of a much bigger picture, which is the need to have a supportive workplace environment for families in general and mothers in particular, given the predominant role they play in bearing and caring for children. We need to go beyond mandatory infrastructural provisions and encourage progressive workplaces that benefit both the employee and the employer.

The global workplace is changing. Millennials and Gen Z have very different expectations towards work and workplaces. There is keen competition for workers and talent, including female workers. Bosses who are empathetic and who can balance business objectives with employee needs, will have a strategic advantage in recruitment and retention. This includes developing a workplace culture that supports motherhood and breastfeeding.

Fostering such an inclusive workplace culture ultimately requires mutual support among supervisors, colleagues and the wider community. It also requires capable human resources (HR) personnel, good HR practices and above all, candid conversations between employers and employees, and a collaborative effort to meet the needs of both. Everyone has a part to play in building a workplace culture of mutual trust so that all employees, including breastfeeding mothers, can give their best both at work and at home.

Together with our tripartite partners, the Government encourages employers to adopt family-friendly workplace practices. For example, employers are encouraged to adopt the Tripartite Standard on Work-Life Harmony. The standards involve implementing good workplace practices to support employees in managing their work responsibilities and personal lives effectively. These include cultivating a breastfeeding-friendly culture in the workplace, offering flexible lactation breaks and providing private lactation rooms.

We will also continue promoting best practices through the Employer's Guide to Breastfeeding at the Workplace, jointly produced by the NTUC U Family, Health Promotion Board (HPB) and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), which includes recommendations on what employers can do to support breastfeeding employees who are returning to work.

In today's world, prospective hires do not only look at a company's business outcomes but also at the progressiveness of its HR practices and workplace culture. I hope employers will view progressive practices, including facilities for breastfeeding mothers, as investments into employee well-being that will in turn benefit all.

Mr Speaker, the Government is committed to supporting inclusive workplaces that enable couples to start, raise and nurture their families. We are reviewing the Code, including the areas highlighted by Mr Ng. We will also continue to work with our tripartite partners to promote family-friendly practices.

However, the Government cannot do this alone. We will need all stakeholders, including building owners, employers and colleagues, to play their part. With this collective effort, we can build a Singapore Made For Families.

Mr Speaker: Mr Louis Ng.

Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang: Thank you, Sir. Just a quick one. I thank the Minister for the reply and for her firm assurances that the recommendations are being looked into. From her smiles, I have a sense that maybe the recommendations will be implemented.

But, I think she mentioned about the Accessibility Fund and that they are considering increasing it to 80%; but only after the Code is reviewed, which could take another year. Could I just ask that in the interim we consider increasing the co-funding to 80% now, because I know cost is a big factor for building owners; and, I think, if we increase it to 80%, there is a good chance that more of the building owners will install the lactation pods or construct a lactation room.

Mr Speaker: Minister, you have less than two minutes to respond.

Ms Indranee Rajah: The answer, Mr Speaker, is that we always take Mr Ng's recommendations seriously. The reason why we would consider this after the Code review is because much depends on what the Code proposes or recommends and what the Code mandates. Because if it mandates more, then employers and building owners may need more assistance. So we have to size the Accessibility Fund depending on what we require them to do.

But, we note Mr Ng's concerns about the urgency and the need to assist them. We will look into that. But in the meantime, as I said, lactation pods are a good way to provide facilities in the interim and the Accessibility Fund is available for that.

Mr Speaker: And I can see smiles and happy faces in the Chamber and up in the Gallery.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, "That Parliament do now adjourn."