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Slavery…Totally Abolished?

~by: Jolovan Wham~

Today is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Most of the individuals sold into slavery by European and Arab slave traders between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries were Africans. During the expansion of the Americas, they were transported to the colonies of North and South America to work in the plantations and mines or other labour intensive industries, or as household servants.

More than 200 years after William Wilberforce led the movement to abolish slavery, it is still very much alive with us today. Slavery is no longer about women and men bound in chains with slave masters cracking their whips in the background. Modern day slavery is treating workers like objects, forced to work for little or no pay at the mercy of their employers. It is characterised by workers being:

  • Forced to work through mental or physical threat;
  • Owned or controlled by an 'employer', usually through mental or physical abuse or threat of abuse;
  • Dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as 'property'; or
  • Physically constrained or being restricted in his/her freedom of movement.

(Anti-Slavery International)

Inadequate legal and social protection has made the estimated one million low-waged migrant workers in Singapore vulnerable to slavery-like practices such as these.

Debt bondage

The government has made recent efforts to limit the fees employment agencies are allowed to charge. However, migrant domestic workers still pay the first six to eight months salary to their agency less an allowance of ten to twenty dollars per month. Some may have also borrowed money to pay the local recruiter in their country of origin.

They are not allowed to terminate their contracts until the debt is repaid and they may be threatened with harassment and harm if they choose to leave their employment situation. Should the worker switch employers during her loan repayment period, she may have to pay an additional two months’ salary as a ‘transfer fee’.

Similarly, workers in construction, shipping, manufacturing, agriculture, and the services pay up to $9000 to their local recruiters for a job here. A significant portion of these fees is taken by local employers as kickbacks.

Workers who are caught in situations of abuse and exploitation may continue to work for fear of losing their jobs and not being able to repay their debts. As a useful method of compliance, historically, debt bondage has frequently been a feature of migrant employment.

‘Sponsorship’ system

Like the Middle Eastern Kafala system, all migrant workers brought into Singapore are only allowed to work for the employer which brought them in. Only those in the construction and domestic work sectors are allowed to switch employers while they are in Singapore and, even so, only if their employer consents.

Employers also have the unilateral right to cancel work permits and repatriate their employees.  This has led to extremely abusive and exploitative conditions because migrant workers may feel compelled to accept employment terms and conditions that they may not have initially agreed to.    

Low and unfair wages

Live-in domestic workers are expected to perform multiple roles in the household; often, they find themselves working up to sixteen hours a day. Their salaries are approximately $350 to $400 a month. This works out to between 70 cents and 80 cents an hour. Migrant workers in other industrial sectors may earn as little $1.30 cents per hour. These women and men may have been promised higher salaries, only to discover when they arrived that the actual salary paid is vastly different. Hourly-rated workers have to work between 12 - 16 hours a day to earn enough to repay their debts and send money home to their families. 

Exclusion of domestic workers, seafarers and fishermen from labour laws

The Employment Act spells out minimum employment standards and guarantees basic labour rights such as a weekly day off, timely payment of salary, and limits to working hours for all employees in Singapore.  Domestic workers, seafarers and fishermen are expressly excluded from the Employment Act. The absence of legal protection has made them vulnerable to forced labour. 

Security bond requirements

All employers are required to put up a $5000 security deposit which will be forfeited if they fail to repatriate their workers at the end of their contract. This requirement only applies to work permit holders. Many employers therefore feel compelled to withhold passports and restrict the movement and freedom of their migrant employees. Some employers even hire security companies to forcefully repatriate their workers.

Even though the Ministry of Manpower has modified these conditions such that employers are no longer responsible for the personal actions and behaviours of the migrant workers they employ, the existence of the security bond still has the undesirable consequence of perpetuating an unequal relationship between both parties, creating a sense of proprietorship over workers and limiting their freedom and movement.

Weak bargaining power

The formation of associations or societies for migrant workers to promote their rights is highly restricted due to regulations that stipulate that the governing bodies of such associations should have Singapore citizens as the majority.

The Trade Unions Act also forbids foreigners from forming their own unions. Due to these barriers and the lack of financial support, there are no registered associations or unions led by migrant workers in Singapore.   

Positive Developments

The recent announcement by the government to legislate a mandatory weekly day off for migrant domestic workers is one such development. Workers who wish to forgo their day off in return for work will be remunerated one day’s worth of salary. Even though concerns about the unequal bargaining power between employers and workers still means that some workers may be pressured to work on their days off, this long overdue reform is the first step towards recognising the rights of migrant domestic workers.

Singapore has also ratified the International Labour Organisation’s Maritime Labour Convention, which will provide protection to the estimated 1.2 million of the world’s seafarers. It sets out seafarers' rights to decent conditions of work, and aims to combat forced labour and human trafficking in the maritime industry. However, the Convention does not cover fishermen, whose ships dock in Singapore, and many of whom are also victims of abuse and exploitation.  

The establishment of an anti-human trafficking taskforce and the recently announced National Plan of Action to combat human trafficking is another positive development. The government is also reviewing whether it should accede to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (referred to as the Palermo Protocol).

It has said it will reverse its long standing approach of treating trafficked migrants as immigration offenders who may be punished with jail and caning rather than as victims. Current legislation such as the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act is also under review to strengthen protections for migrant workers.

What else needs to change

In Singapore’s post independence years, its leaders were anxious to create jobs for its people and reduce unemployment figures. In their efforts to attract investors, workers’ rights were limited. Over the decades this has created the mindset that employment conditions and workers rights had to be compromised for economic development.

The ‘commodification’ of labour, whereby workers are stripped down to their bare economic value, has led to our current crisis. Weak labour protections have made it more advantageous for employers to hire and exploit migrant workers, displacing local workers in the process. Productivity levels remain low because there are few incentives for exploited workers to contribute to their companies.

Improving labour standards and mechanisms for redress is perceived as impeding economic development. Equitable relationships between workers, employers, and employment agents will accompany improvements in worker productivity and performance. Employment protections lead to increased productivity. Singapore has much to gain from upholding workers’ rights. It is no surprise that countries with the highest productivity levels are those which have travelled the furthest from slavery.


Jolovan Wham is a social worker who works on migrant labour issues

Photo courtesy of the zeitgeist media project