The release of the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill on 7 October 2014 has raised many questions and concerns regarding its effectiveness in combating the scourge of human trafficking in Singapore. Most pertinently, the bill fails to ensure victims’ safety, livelihood and sustenance so that they are empowered to report, identify and testify against traffickers.
Because human trafficking is a highly lucrative and clandestine crime, the key to prosecuting traffickers is through the testimonies of the victims. However, the fear of reprisals from traffickers and the authorities and the pressure to support their families financially strongly discourage victims from reporting their cases. Victims face many challenges accessing help. This is the reality.
Why the Bill should include the Right Not to be prosecuted as an undocumented migrant?
It continues to baffle us that the authorities seem to believe that trafficked victims will turn up at the police stations and Family Service Centres to report their cases when they are unsure if they would be prosecuted as undocumented migrants or for working illegally.1 The right not to be prosecuted for these legal infringements have to be included in the anti-trafficking legislation in order for victims to be empowered to speak up.
Our current reliance on police raids to identify trafficked victims fails on two fronts. Firstly, the emphasis on police raids belies the perception that trafficked victims are sex trafficked victims. It ignores the spectrum of victims that also includes foreign domestic workers who are trapped in private residences. In a 2010 research conducted by HOME, 149 of the 151 abused domestic workers living in the HOME shelter are flagged as trafficked cases.2 Many more foreign domestic workers remain vulnerable to trafficking. What is done to enable them to access help?
Secondly, there is no clear evidence that police raids have been effective in ‘rescuing’ victims. In fact, because raids are often violent, they can have the undesired effect of leading to secondary traumatisation of victims.3
Why the Bill should include the Right to Work?
The right to work must not be confused with either the need to work or the right to a job. Enshrining it into the anti-trafficking legislation is critical because the right to work is very frequently the first question victims asked when deciding to report or not their cases to the interagency taskforce. Jolovan Wham, HOME, noted that, “Whenever we talk to migrant workers and trafficked migrants, and whenever we try to encourage them to file complaints, one of the first things they ask us is: ‘Will I be able to switch employers or remain in Singapore to work?’
Victims are aware that police investigations and court proceedings take months and even years to complete. While they are trying to bring their perpetrators to justice, their families back home are starved of an income. If the anti-traffickng legislation does not clearly state the right to work, it is challenging to encourage victims to report their cases.
However, in the 30 October 2014 Straits Times’s article “Trafficked victims taken care of and provided work: Police and MOM”, MOM and police state that only those victims who fulfill employment conditions are allowed to work under a temporary work scheme. MOM needs to clarify what are the employment conditions victims need to fulfill so that victims have sufficient information to make informed choices.
Further, these employment conditions should be reviewed to reflect the priorities of protecting victims and combating the scourge of human trafficking. If so, a recent case we had of 3 Vietnamese women who were trafficked into working in a cruise ship would not have left without reporting their cases. As Vietnam is not a source country for work permit holders, they would not be eligible for temporary work scheme.
Work in the shelter house is a provision made for those for eligible for temporary work scheme. However, we understand that the wages for this work is equivalent to pocket money rather than an income that victims can send home to support their families.
Mr Kandhavel Periyasamy, director of MOM’s Joint Ops Directorate, said “the focus is more on rehabilitation rather than the ability to earn income”. 4 This misses the point that weighing on the shoulders of trafficked victims are the real burdens of providing for their families and paying off the debt incurred in the migration.
Perhaps there is a fear that enshrining victims’ rights in the Bill will lead to the undesirable situation of opening the floodgate to victims. Jolovan Wham, HOME, addressed this issue, “There is concern that if the Bill is too victim-centric, people may identify themselves as victims. (But) we cannot deny rights to a majority because we are afraid that a minority would identify themselves as victims when they are not.”
The spectre of a floodgate of victims is unfounded because protocols are in place by the interagency taskforce to process cases such that no one can simple claim to be a victim and be treated as one. Any one who vaguely understands the exploitation and horrors of being trafficked will not suggest that there are those who risk being trafficked to enter Singapore for work, when many legal channels to obtain low-wage work are open.
The authorities are expecting more victims to come forward to report their cases with the passing of the Bill. We are more cautious in our optimism. As long as the Bill does not address the needs of trafficked victims for legal protection and right to work, it is in danger of remaining a paper exercise.
The opportunity is tomorrow at the 2nd reading of the Bill in parliament. We hope our Members of Parliament will support a victim-centric bill. #stoptraffickingsg
1 Channel News Asia, “Only a ‘minority’ of labour cases were suspected trafficking cases: Taskforce”, 27 October 2014
2 HOME publication, “The Invisible Help: Trafficking into Domestic Servitude in Singapore”, http://home.org.sg/research/human-trafficking.html
3 Stoptraffickingsg wordpress, “Victim Protection Enforces the Law; Batons and Raids Do Not, http://ow.ly/Drpsj
4 Straits Times, “Trafficked victims taken care of and provided work: Police and MOM” , 30 October 2014