Human Trafficking and Exploitation in Singapore

By Tiffany Gwee

In late February 2014, the Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons (co-chaired by Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Home Affairs) partnered with the Singapore Committee for UN Women and H.O.M.E to set up a conference with business leaders, government officials and experts. The aim of the conference was to address the greatest practices in the field of labour and to stop the issue of Trafficking in Persons.

According to the United State’s Government’s Trafficking in Person’s report 2013 (Page 54-55) , Singapore is a destination country for women and girls to be trafficked for the purpose of labour and commercial sexual exploitation.

There are some women from neighbouring countries like Thailand, India, Cambodia and People’s Republic of China who travel to Singapore voluntarily for prostitution or work but are subsequently deceived or coerced into sexual servitude.

“Some foreign women are recruited through offers of legitimate employment and deceived about the nature or conditions of the prospective work in Singapore. Others enter Singapore with the intention of engaging in prostitution but upon arrival are subjected to forced prostitution under the threat of serious harm, including financial harm. Child sex trafficking occurs in Singapore.”

Exploitation of Workers with Debt Bondage

There are over a million foreign workers in Singapore that comprises of more than a third of the labour force here. Majority of them are unskilled workers that work in the industries of construction, domestic service and hospitality. Many of them have “assumed debts associated with their employment and recruitment agencies in both Singapore and their home countries”. In 2010, a Non-government Organisation (NGO) study reported that Indian, Bangladeshi, and Chinese migrant workers paid fees to employment agencies that “constitute on average at least 10 months of their potential earnings”. This makes them absolutely “vulnerable to forced labour” using the method of Debt Bondage.

Shockingly, some employers in Singapore rely on “repatriation companies to seize, confine, and escort foreign workers to the airport for departure from Singapore”. This could be done through the “use of assaults, threats, and coercion, to prevent them from complaining to abuses to authority”.

Singapore in Tier 2 of Watch List

According to the US Government’s Trafficking in Person’s Report, the Government of Singapore does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Singapore is classified under ‘Tier 2’ of the watch list. Other countries in Tier 2 include South Africa, Sri Lanka, Ghana etc.

Characteristics of a Tier 2 Country
Countries that are not following the Protocol

Lack of Legal Definition

However, Singapore is making “significant effort” to help alleviate the issue of human trafficking. In late 2012, following consultations with NGOs, the government enacted the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA). This strengthened protections for foreign workers by increasing penalties for those that exploit the vulnerable workers. The situation seems to be improving in terms of “overall coordination” and “examination” of suspected cases, but there is an obvious “lack of legal definition” of trafficking. This undermines the government’s ability to correctly identify and help the exploited, particularly when it involves victims that were willing to migrate here.

Unfortunately, while the government investigated more than 400 leads, it substantiated only 21 trafficking cases during the year (2013) due to the lack of a law defining trafficking in accordance with international standards. This left many victims “without full access to full governmental protections, including work permits or change of employer”.

Issuing Advisories Instead of Penalties

While the government identified 15 employment agencies that engaged in the confiscation of workers’ travel documents, it only “issued advisories to the agencies, instead of applying stringent penalties that would serve an adequate deterrent”. It should be noted that confiscation of travel documents is considered by the UN to be a key indicator of human trafficking.

Recommendations from U.S. Department of State

There are recommendations that Singapore strengthens investigations and punishment, and to use existing laws to prosecute employers and agencies who unlawfully confiscate passports as a means of holding them in a state of involuntary servitude. There is also a need to ensure “all vicitims receive adequate protections regardless of whether their cases lead to prosecution” and to “accede to the 2000 UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol” – in which Singapore is not yet complying with.

Supposed ‘inaccuracies’ in the Report?

After being published in 2013, local authorities were discontented with the report. As evident from local news sources in mid-2013, the Singapore authorities have “criticised” this report, saying it “continues to present inaccuracies and misrepresentations”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs found the report very “puzzling” and questioned the reliability of it as there seems to be insufficient explanation as to how the conclusions were made.

Cover photo taken by Desmond Wee
Credits to Mr. Leong Sze Hian who attended the conference and brought this topic up