Anti-trafficking law · Trafficking in Singapore

The Anti-Trafficking Act: Looking Ahead

human rights

 It is to be hoped that there will be a strong degree of cooperation in monitoring the implementation of the PHTA between all concerned. Furthermore, there needs to be a determined effort by all concerned to conduct education on trafficking, so that an informed and concerned public is mobilised to counter it.

This article is written by John Gee, Chair of TWC2’s research sub-committee, in his personal capacity.

Only six years ago, trafficking was hardly recognised as a problem that concerned  in Singapore. The country had laws that the government argued allowed the prosecution of trafficking in women and children. However, the official understanding of what trafficking is was very restricted; essentially, if children were not involved and the  method by which people were transported into exploitation was not very obviously coercive, then the authorities would not acknowledge that trafficking had taken place.

There has been considerable movement since then. Trafficking has gone from being a problem highlighted by interested academics and migrant rights activists to one of which there is a fair degree of public awareness, even if the general public understanding is still somewhat hazy. The formation of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Trafficking in Persons signalled a recognition at the official level of the need to move away from the denial that prevailed in the past towards an understanding more in line with international standards and an active policy of countering trafficking. The desirability of a victim-centred approach has been acknowledged in principle, even if the practical implications of that acknowledgement clearly need more working out. On top of this,  the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA) has been passed – not a series of piecemeal amendments to existing legislation, but a dedicated act that focusses Singapore’s legislative approach to trafficking in one legal instrument, which is better for both law enforcement and public awareness.

All of this represents very significant progress. If NGOs and some individuals concerned with trafficking have been critical of aspects of the act, it is not because they are unaware of or disregard what has been achieved in the past six years, but rather, because they had hoped that the new act would crown the process of change more comprehensively and decisively, particularly in victim support.

There is no need to re-iterate the criticisms made here. The PHTA has been passed, and, like any other piece of legislation, it will now be put to the test and no doubt, its strengths and weaknesses will be established through the trials of day to day experience.

Future decisions on the amendment of the PHTA or on supplementary measures to be introduced will depend largely on effective monitoring of its implementation. Implementation, in turn, will depend not merely on observing the letter of the new law, but on the degree of commitment that exists to put it into effect pro-actively and with proper consideration for trafficked people – something that needs thought and imagination and that cannot simply be legislated. It is to be hoped that there will be a strong degree of cooperation in monitoring the implementation of the PHTA between all concerned. Furthermore, there needs to be a determined effort by all concerned to conduct education on trafficking, so that an informed and concerned public is mobilised to counter it.

This process would be complemented by a parallel strategy, which I suggest here.

That is to reduce the “grey zone” where the conditions of trafficked people and those of migrant workers in the worst employment situations overlap and become hard to tell apart. It would involve a number of measures.

Firstly, ensuring greater “security of presence” for migrant workers in Singapore. This means removing the ability of employers to arbitrarily send home migrant workers. If a person has been allowed to enter Singapore to work, then they should be allowed to work to earn money while they are able and willing, and while Singapore’s economy needs them – a decision that should not be left to individual employers to make. This means bringing in measures to make it easier for workers to transfer to new employers and at least making a start on considering how they might qualify to move between different economic sectors.

If this question is resolved well, it will answer the argument advanced during the Parliamentary debate on the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill that providing for the employment of trafficked people with new employers could lead to false claims of trafficking: a more flexible employment regime would make any recourse to such claims by migrant workers pointless.

Secondly, the whole process of recruitment and employment needs to be made more transparent and documented well. The Ministry of Manpower requires that workers should be given a copy of their In Principle Approval in their own country, in their own language, and this is meant to provide a good reference point in case there is a dispute over their employment terms later on. Unfortunately, employers in numerous cases seen by NGOs have got away with making workers sign contracts with inferior terms to the IPA’s once they arrive. This should not be allowed: if they can’t afford to pay the worker as they said, such companies should be obliged to refund workers’ costs, let them seek alternative employment and immediately cease publicising the original IPA terms as being what they are prepared to offer.

Agencies should be obliged to provide employers and workers with itemised bills showing what they are paying for.

Workers should receive itemised payslips and have their salaries paid into bank accounts in their own names only.

Thirdly, a concerted attack on the high costs of placement is needed. This will require regional cooperation. Indebted workers are poorly placed to assert their rights. If the burden of debt was taken away from migrant workers in general, there would be very positive consequences for the fight against human trafficking.

The temptation, in countries of origin, to take an irregular route to employment in Singapore, and to be persuaded by the extravagant promises of recruiters, would be reduced. The word would get around that there are channels of job placement that are inexpensive and bring workers to employment on the terms and conditions promised in the country of origin. Once in Singapore, the status of new debt-free workers, able to assert their contractual and legal rights, would set them apart from that of trafficked workers subject to illegal restrictions and coercive treatment: trafficked individuals would become more visible.

Fourthly, the mandatory day off policy should be tightened so that all domestic workers should not only be entitled to have a weekly day off, but should take at least half of them each month by law. While employers and agencies have the power to coerce them into “voluntarily” agreeing to surrender their days off in return for payment, many will continue to do so: the only alternative is to make it legally unacceptable for any person to be denied days off and prevented from leaving their place of employment, and having a guaranteed minimum of two days off every month would at least give those domestic workers who don’t at present receive days off some breaks and a chance to seek help and advice if need be.

Confinement and being prevented from communicating with the outside world are indicators of trafficking, and ending the ability of any employer to impose them legally upon a worker would eliminate these elements from legitimate employment sectors.

Fifthly, the Passports Act should be enforced: employers are not entitled to take control of their workers’ passports (or rather, in international law, the documents that belong to the governments of their countries of origin), but many do. Furthermore, any seizure of workers’ property that allows them freedom of movement and communication – including their work permits and their mobile phones – should be treated as an act of theft and punished accordingly.

Implementation of these measures as a package would significantly improve the status of all migrant workers in legal employment in Singapore. They would establish a much clearer distinction than exists at present between these workers and those in conditions of trafficking and extreme exploitation. In the long run, any costs would be made up to Singapore as a country by the enhancement of its ability to retain experienced and skilled workers and by the increased respect in which it would be held in the outside world. #stoptraffickingsg

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