I would like to congratulate the Member for Holland-Bukit Timah and his team for introducing the Prevention of human Trafficking Bill in Parliament. This is a long overdue legislation which NGOs and activists have been advocating for many years. The existing legislation such as the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, Employment Act, Penal Code and Women’s Charter are inadequate to tackle trafficking in persons. Therefore, it is commendable that it is finally acknowledged that human trafficking is a serious crime which needs to be tackled through a standalone legislation.
Madam Speaker, In my preparation for this speech, I had the opportunity to meet NGO representatives who have expressed reservations about the scope of this Bill. They are concerned particularly that the Bill does not provide adequate protection to victims. NGOs such as Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) which runs shelters, help desks and legal aid for trafficked victims is concerned that not enough social support is provided to them. In their experience, they have housed victims who are required to assist in investigations for long periods of time: sometimes for up to two years or more. Some of these victims are not allowed to work, they suffer from mental illness such as depression and anxiety, and have no means of income to support their families back home.
The NGOs involved have made following demands in a petition which they have submitted to Member of parliament Christopher De Souza sometime this year.
Madam Speaker, Under Clause 19 of the bill, Assistance to traficked victims, I note that the right to accommodation and counselling is guaranteed in the new Bill but can the Member clarify if this will apply to all victims and not just those who are victims of sex trafficking? The forms of assistance provided under Clause 19, (1),(2) are inadequate. In some cases, the provisions raise more questions than answers: the clause stipulating the provision of temporary shelter, for instance, is not specific. How long will such shelter be provided for? Will it be safe? There is no mention of whether the trafficked victim placed in a temporary shelter would have freedom of movement. Will the counselling provided be undertaken on a confidential basis? This section of the bill makes no mention of legal aid, medical treatment, compensation and social support.I would like to propose admendments to include these under Clause 19 (1) of the bill.
The role of Director of Social Welfare, referred to in Clause 19(1) in the provision of shelter and counseling, is inappropriate and unclear. The Director of Social Welfare’s statutory function under the Children and Young Persons Act is only empowered to act in the interests of children and young persons. Will he or she have the authority to do so on behalf of trafficked victims above the age of 16 It is unclear what type of temporary shelters the Director of Social Welfare be able to provide for trafficked victims above the age of 16.
It is also important that migrants who have been trafficked not to be prosecuted for being an undocumented immigrant, for working illegally or violating work pass regulations. This is because those who are trafficked may have been deceived or coerced into committing such offences. What safeguards are there to ensure that victims will not be unjustifiably punished especially when these provisions are not guaranteed in law?
Employment is also an important issue for victims who are assisting in investigations. Many migrant workers come to Singapore because they want a better life for their families. If they are stuck in Singapore without any opportunity to work, how would they be able to support their families back in their home countries? I note that MOM imposes strict restrictions on nationality for work permit holders. For instance, Vietnam is not an approved source country. Would trafficked victims from Vietnam be allowed to work? The current system as it stands unfairly discriminates against victims from countries that are not “approved source countries”. It also undermines the effectiveness of any anti-trafficking laws, as victims are hesitant to report their cases as an investigation will effectively trap them in Singapore with no livelihood.
Victims of trafficking should be entitled to legal aid, in the form of access to legal information and legal representation. In Singapore, victims are not provided with legal aid for the pursuit of civil claims against their traffickers. They are also not provided with protection and advice in order to enable them to participate voluntarily in investigations and prosecutions. According to Anti-Slavery International, cases found where the trafficked person had legal representation and their rights protected, predominantly will lead to a more successful conviction. Lawyers are crucial in ensuring victims of trafficking be given accurate information about court proceeding, their role as a witness, and recognised as a victim of crime. It is crucial to ensure victims have access to legal redress and compensation within established channels under Singapore law.
Victims of trafficking should be offered payment or reparation for injury, loss or harm. Such reparation helps to empower the victim, contributes to their recovery and reduces the risk of re-trafficking. At the same time it serves as punishment and deterrence for traffickers. Reparation should include restitution from the offender in the criminal court, aid from state administered victim compensation funds, and damage ordered to be paid in civil or administrative proceedings.
Several key concepts in this Bill are not defined. For example, there is no definition of forced labour or deception in Part 1 of the Bill, although they are central to a thorough understanding of trafficking in persons. The definition of coercion also does not include a psychological element because psychological coercion in the form of threats and criminal intimidation have been reported by victims of human trafficking. There is also no definition of deception in the Bill, which is a very common indicator of trafficking in persons. The most common forms of deception encountered by the NGOs is deception of the nature of work and deception of the conditions of work. For example, a domestic worker may be told that she is in Singapore to do household chores but ends up working in a business. A migrant worker may also be promised high salaries and favourable working conditions but ends up working excessive days and hours for no or little pay. Would the new Bill consider such situations as deception?
Forced labour is also not defined in the Bill. The International labour Organisation (ILO) defines forced labour as ‘“all work or service that is exacted from any person under the threat of any penalty and for which the person concerned has not offered him or herself voluntarily”
Threats of penalty are defined as stipulated by the ILO, should be defined but not limited to the following:
- Physical violence against worker, family or close associates
- Sexual violence
- Imprisonment or other forms of physical confinement
- Financial penalties
- Denunciation to authorities
- Dismissal from work or exclusion from future employment
- Exclusion from community and social life
- Removal of rights or privileges
- Deprivation of food, shelter, or other necessities
- Shift to even worse working conditions
It is important to note that Singapore has ratified C29 Forced labour Convention and in June this year, voted in favour of a supplementary protocol to this convention. In light of this, can the Member of Parliament clarify if the definition of forced labour used by the ILO will be the working definition of the Bill. If it is, why is it not defined there?
Raids and abuse of power
According to this Bill, police and non-police enforcement officers are able to arrest and forcibly gain entry to premises without warrant, and are to be armed with batons and accoutrements “as are necessary”. It is important to note that of the 19-page long Bill, six full pages are dedicated to a section on “Enforcement” while only two pages are dedicated to “Victim Protection and Assistance”. In percentage terms the “Enforcement” section takes up 30% of the Bill, while the “Victim Protection and Assistance” section takes up only 10% of the bill. This disparity is something that we should be particularly concerned about. Project X, a NGO that works with sex workers has witnessed many of such raids and they are often violent and invasive in nature. If these powers are exercised to their fullest extent, such raids and arrests may result in the secondary traumatisation of vulnerable victims of trafficking. What measures are being taken to ensure that this does not happen? As raids are often violent in nature, is this even possible? Why are these provisions on enforcement necessary? Aren’t the current provisions under the Criminal Procedures Code sufficient
Recovery and reflection
A period which would allow victims the time to “recover and reflect” prior to deciding whether or not to press charges against their trafficker is important for the protection of the human rights of trafficked persons. According to human trafficking experts and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “If a victim is put under pressure to press charges immediately, the risk increases that he or she will withdraw the statement at a later stage.” Therefore, designating a recovery and reflection period is in the interest of both victim and authorities. Is there a reason this is not included in the Bill?
Cooperation with countries of origin
One of the ways in which traffickers intimidate victims is by threatening their families back home. What provisions are there to ensure that the Singapore government works with offcials and NGOs of sending countries to deal with this issue? Trafficking is a trans-national crime which requires regional and international cooperation. What kinds of cooperation will be taken by the Singapore government to ensure that trafficked victims who return to their countries of origin are successfully reintegrated and do not risk being trafficked again?
The importance of a victim centric approach
Successful prosecution of traffickers will depend significantly on victim cooperation. This can only be achieved when victims feel supported through the investigation and prosecution process. Legislation is necessary to ensure that the system of victim protection and entitlement is transparent, accessible and consistently and effectively implemented. A legislated framework will assist those working with victims of trafficking to give accurate and consistent advice. The alternative approach of developing “guidelines” and assessing victim entitlements on a case-by-case basis leads to inconsistency, a lack of transparency, potential discrimination and a situation in which victims are required to prove that they are “deserving” of certain protections.
Rather than relying on the criminal justice system to identify victims, HOME recommends the adoption of a victim-centered verification process. Front-line officers will make an initial determination that there are “reasonable grounds” for suspecting that a particular individual is a victim of trafficking. A suspected victim’s immediate needs must be addressed at this point, for example by the provision of shelter and counseling. Following this, a process of further investigation should be implemented to determine within a specified timeframe (30 days is recommended) that “on the balance of probabilities” the person is a victim of trafficking. Entitlements such as a right to work and to legal aid would then follow this conclusive determination. Extensive guidelines on a victim centric approach to identifying trafficked persons exist and are enforced by many countries around the world including member countries of the EU, Australia, UK and the United States.
The burden of proving that trafficking has occurred should not fall on the shoulders of a victim. Concerns that legislated protections and entitlements for victims of trafficking may be exploited can be addressed by the introduction of a robust victim-identification process.
Victims are the most important people in identifying human traffickers, their customers, and the larger criminal networks that operate behind them. These criminal actors depend upon weak or under-enforced victim protections to conduct their business. This is why very few mid- to high-level actors in trafficking rings are ever apprehended, and why human trafficking remains a low risk, high reward activity. Additionally, international criminal organizations are often involved in not only human trafficking, but also other crimes, such as drugs and weapons smuggling. Implementing a victim-centered approach to human trafficking increases the chances of identifying higher-level actors and severing an income stream that can fuel additional trafficking and other crimes that threaten the security of Singapore. NGOs such as HOME has found that potential victims of trafficking are hesitant to report their cases because they see little benefit from doing so. While reporting is crucial for the Bill to have the punitive and deterrent impact that is intended, victims gain little from the process. I hope the Member can clarify on the suggestions I have raised and that this house will move towards a more victim-centred approach for this bill.
Madam Speaker I support the bill.