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KTV singers, trafficking and exploitation

By Jolovan Wham (HOME) –

It was close to midnight when I received a call for help from a mainland Chinese woman (let's calll her Lily) who works in a KTV lounge along Jalan Besar Road. Her hand phone had been forcibly taken by her employer and she was being threatened. She was afraid that she might be harmed because her ex colleague was beaten up and sent back to China for arguing with the employer. I called the police and went down to find out what was happening.

The employer claimed that she was kicking up a fuss out of nothing and explained that he was merely ‘safe keeping’ her hand phone because singers are not allowed to carry them while they are at work. When I replied that she was old enough to keep her own hand phone, he sneered at me and said it was ‘none of my business’. Thankfully, the presence of the police prevented the situation from turning ugly and the hand phone was promptly returned after she was interviewed by them.

My subsequent conversations with Lily revealed the following details about her predicament:

1) She had come into Singapore as a singer but told us she was subjected to indirect pressure by her employer to have sexual relations with the club’s customers through financial penalties. This usually happens if she is unable to meet the club’s targets for the number of garlands she is supposed to ‘sell’ to customers. What happens in many of these KTV clubs is that customers will purchase garlands to hang around the necks of the women they like who are performing on stage. Each garland may cost up to $500. Her salary is based on the number of garlands she is able to sell. If the customer does not pay up, her bosses will tell her to ‘do what it takes’ to get money out of them. If she does not bring in enough money, her pay will be docked. Her passport is also withheld by the employer.

3) She has to work 7 days a week and only allowed one day off a month. In the event that more leave is taken, a fine is imposed. This rule also applies when they fall sick and request medical leave. When they are sick, they are still required to report for work but they are ‘allowed’ to rest in a room in the club premises.

4) Her salary for July 2012, and August has not been paid. A ‘security deposit’ of $500 withheld every month for six months is also unpaid. Her salary has also been subject to arbitrary deductions for fines imposed by the employer for mistakes made at work, or for not performing up to standard. The company keeps all salary records and she has no access to them. She is unable to ‘prove’ that she has not been paid properly because her salary is given in cash and she is not given any acknowledgement slips or salary vouchers.

When a volunteer brought her to the Ministry of Manpower, she was informed by the officer that there was little they could do except to assist her to claim her salary and retrieve her passport. This was despite the fact that I had written a letter describing the situation in detail to alert the officer in charge that they may have a trafficking case on their hands.

In 2011, the Singapore government announced that they had established an inter-agency taskforce to strengthen anti human trafficking measures in Singapore. This was wonderful news for many of us in the migrant rights community and HOME, the NGO that I work for cheered this development. However, we have yet to see any substantial changes in the way exploited and trafficked migrant workers are protected. When frontline government officers are unable to identify possible trafficking cases for investigation even after they have been alerted to them, what about the many others who have approached them for assistance without a NGO worker present?

TOC thanks Jolovan for allowing us to publish this article, which first appeared as a Facebook note.

Photo courtesy: Jolovan Faceook note