Trafficking in Singapore

Trapped on the High Sea


My name is Linh, I am a young mother from the Vietnamese countryside. I live in a small rural community with few opportunities to make a lot of money. With my young son just one year old and a mortgage to pay I find it increasingly hard to make ends meet.

The pressure I feel myself under is all it takes to tempt me to accept an offer for work in Singapore. The recruiter tells me and my two neighbours, Phoung and Chi, that we will earn $1000 dollars a month working as waitresses on a cruise ship. The recruitment cost, we are told, will be $2000 dollars. It seems a lot and I am reluctant to pay but they remind us of the $1,000 a month we will be earning in Singapore and the fact that we could get overtime…

The agent tells me that we will be able to repay our $2,000 within a month. It makes perfect sense to sign up, so we borrow money from friends and family and pay the fees. We travel to Singapore and stay a night in a guesthouse. The next morning we are taken to the cruise operator’s office.

They tell us we will be working on a casino ship, we will get one day off a week and will work no more than eight hours a day. We are given two contracts- one in English, another in Vietnamese which we sign. Later that day we begin work serving drinks and food on the ship.

The conditions seem OK and the food is fine, but the hours are long. A lot longer than we expected. We are not given a day off and are not paid for overtime. We have to work 11 hours a day, 7 days a week.

We have deductions from our salary, leaving our take home pay at $280.

We are then given a form declaring that we have made mistakes and agreeing that if we make more than five mistakes we will have one or two months’ salary deducted and be sent back to Vietnam.

We know this isn’t fair. There was no mention of these conditions when we discussed with our agent and paid our $2,000 and we decide to speak with the captain. When we try to speak to him though, the manager refuses.

We insist that we should be allowed to meet him but the manager threatens to beat us, saying, ‘Be very careful. One day I will kill you if you are very stubborn like this.’

The abuse from the manager escalates. He threatens us daily with beatings and murder. And routinely uses financial punishments and the threat of repatriation to get what he wants- submission. We are terrified of this man, he hits women with impunity and uses aggression to control the staff.

One day he again threatens to kill us. He raises his hand to hit me and is only stopped by the brave intervention of the other workers on the ship. We decide we have had enough and plan our escape.

The next day the ship docks at Harbour Front and we are given our passports. During our working hours, our passports are kept by our employer. The deal, as always, is that we must return to the ship within three hours. We take this opportunity to escape.

After fleeing the ship we go to the Vietnamese embassy and ask for help. They tell us there is nothing they can do. A friend tells us about HOME, that they might be able to help us bring a prosecution and give us shelter. We go and fill out the forms and are then taken to their refuge centre.

We think about reporting the case to the police but are scared we will lose the ability to work in Singapore. As Vietnam is not an approved source country for work permit holders HOME say they cannot guarantee that we will be eligible to work under the Temporary Job Scheme.

This means that if we bring prosecutions against our employer we will have to wait in the country with no income for months… maybe year. We want justice but cannot afford to lose our earnings. We decide not to report it.

HOME then help us buy airline tickets so we can return home to our families.

StopTraffickingSG: It is crucial for the success of an anti-trafficking law that victims are encouraged to report traffickers. In many cases, the bottom-line for migrant workers is the ability to earn money. Ensuring that victims of trafficking have a decent opportunity to work while they assist investigations, regardless of the sector they work in or where they are from, will strengthen the law’s effectiveness in preventing and prosecuting traffickers in Singapore.


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