Trafficking in Singapore

Singapore’s new anti-trafficking Act does not go far enough

Christopher De Souza and the Inter-Agency Taskforce discuss the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill.
Christopher De Souza and the Inter-Agency Taskforce discuss the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill. Photo: SPH

The passing of the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act yesterday in Parliament has raised questions and concerns regarding its effectiveness in combating the scourge of human trafficking.

It is our contention that the Act does not have sufficient measures to ensure the protection of victims’ safety, livelihood and sustenance that would empower them to report, identify and testify against traffickers.

As human trafficking is a highly lucrative and clandestine crime, the key to prosecuting traffickers is through the testimonies and cooperation of victims. However, fear of reprisals and the pressure to support their families are disincentives to victims filing complaints to the authorities. Victims face many challenges accessing help, a reality the Bill does not properly address or rectify.

Undocumented migrants run the risk of prosecution

In its response to StopTraffickingSG, the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons claimed that victims of trafficking could approach family service centres, police stations and neighbourhood police posts if they needed assistance. However, this is highly unlikely as trafficked victims who have been deceived or coerced into illegal work, or who have overstayed their visas could be prosecuted for immigration or work pass offences. The right not to be prosecuted for these infringements has to be included in the Act in order for victims to be empowered to seek help. Moreover, many family service centres do not have the capacity to assist trafficked victims, nor are their programmes focused on assisting low-waged migrant workers.

Our current reliance on police raids to identify trafficked victims will only have limited effectiveness. Firstly, the emphasis on police raids belies the perception that trafficked victims are sex trafficked victims. It ignores other victims, such as foreign domestic workers who are trapped in private residences. In a 2011 research conducted by Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), 149 of the 151 abused domestic workers living in the HOME shelter were subjected to working and living conditions which those who have been trafficked often experience.


Why the Act should include the right to work

HOME’s executive director, Jolovan Wham says, “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 finish. While they may want to bring perpetrators to justice, their families back home need support. If the anti-trafficking legislation does not guarantee the right to work, victims may not step forward.

In the article “Trafficked victims taken care of and provided work: Police and MOM” (The Straits Ties 30 October), The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and police state that only victims who fulfill ‘employment conditions’ are allowed to work under a Temporary Job Scheme (TJS). MOM needs to clarify what these conditions are. It is a fact that MOM denies employment to work permit holders who are not from approved source countries. Therefore, Vietnamese, Nepalese, and Laotian workers, for example, will not be allowed to work even though they are trafficked simply because they are not from an approved source country.

The Taskforce has also argued that victims performing menial jobs in shelters can earn income.  However, such 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, himself acknowledged that“the focus is more on rehabilitation rather than the ability to earn income”.  Member of Parliament Christopher De Souza said in an interview with Straits Times that some victims may prefer not to work but to recover and rehabilitate in a shelter. However, we maintain that the option to work should be provided as it is important to take into consideration the financial burdens trafficked victims face in providing for their families and paying off debts incurred to recruiters.

There may be fears that guaranteeing rights to victims in the Act may lead to migrant workers falsely claiming victim status. But denying rights to genuine victims to prevent those who might abuse the system is not an effective way of dealing with the problem. The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crimes has developed guidelines to identify victims. There are many countries such as the EU, UK and Australia who have developed similar protocols in their legislation, which Singapore can learn from.

The case for including victim rights   

MP Christopher de Souza also said, “it was not pragmatic to mandate an umbrella suite of measures, beyond the provision of a temporary shelter and counselling service [because each victim has his/her unique needs]”. This is missing the point that our concerns rest not with the uniqueness of the victims’ needs but with enabling them to report their cases.

We are aware that as much as victims want redress for the injustice that had befallen them, they are hesitant to report their cases without legal guarantee that they will not be prosecuted for committing offences principally due to their being trafficked. For many victims who want to work, they risk being victimised again should their right to work is denied after reporting their cases.

Codifying the right not to be prosecuted for offences related to being trafficked and the right to work into the anti-trafficking law is necessary. It should not be confused with provision of welfare because it is centred on the most critical point of combating trafficking: empowering victims to report and assist prosecutions.

In drafting our laws, we must be motivated by the belief in human dignity, in helping victims to rehabilitate and stemming trafficking, not the fear of a minority who may abuse the law. That will be a misplaced motivation. Moreover, it is pure conjecture that workers who wish to change their jobs may do so automatically by falsely claiming to be trafficked victims as protocols are in place to assess all claims made.

The authorities are expecting more victims to come forward to report their cases with the passing of the Act. We are more cautious in our optimism. As long as the Act does not address the needs of trafficked victims for legal protection, adequate social support and right to work, it is unlikely that they will step forward.

Questions were raised about the adequacy of victims’ rights before the Act was passed in Parliament. These remain valid questions that need to be addressed in order for the Act to be effective. We are hopeful that the Act will eventually evolve into one that will enshrine the rights of victims in law.



Tam Peck Hoon

Campaign Manager on behalf of

StopTraffickingSG coalition