Anti-trafficking law

Anti-trafficking law: Singapore can do better

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The Act needs to be amended to make it more comprehensive. The Inter-Agency Task Force should implement the Act in ways that uphold these rights. Only then will Singapore make real progress towards meeting international anti-trafficking standards.

By Vivienne Wee and Goh Li Sian

The recently passed Prevention of Human Trafficking Act has been lauded as a significant advance. Building on the work of the Inter-Agency Task Force on trafficking, it reflects a welcome consciousness that trafficking is a serious problem requiring decisive state action. However, beyond its symbolic value, it should be asked: How well does it measure against international standards?

Three international standards are relevant. The first is the US’ annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. This classifies states in terms of success in protecting victims. In 2010, Singapore slipped from Tier 2 in a four-tier system to a “Tier 2 Watch List”, for countries with a significant number of trafficking victims and which fail to show efforts to combat the situation. This classification was due to Singapore’s ostensibly inadequate prosecution or conviction of human traffickers, especially labour traffickers.

The 2014 TIP report notes the Government’s failure to recognise elements of trafficking in cases without physical confinement or abuse. While some criticise the TIP report as patchy, it nevertheless indicates the distance that Singapore has yet to go.

The second is the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This is a key human rights treaty that Singapore has ratified. Article 6 requires states to take all appropriate measures to suppress all forms of trafficking in women. The third is the UN Palermo Protocol on trafficking. This is ratified by 165 states of the UN but not Singapore.

How far does the new Act go towards meeting these three global standards and preventing human trafficking? Although the Act’s definitions are said to be based on international treaties, the Act does not adequately recognise key elements of trafficking as set out in the Palermo Protocol, such as profiteering by traffickers.

The Act also offers little recognition of the rights to safety and livelihood necessary to encourage victims to report their cases, identify traffickers and testify against them – a process which can take up to three years. Unless victims feel secure that their welfare needs will be met, they will be discouraged from coming forward to participate in these prosecutions.

The Act currently allows for “temporary shelter”, but without mandating the nature of this accommodation and without any legal guarantee that victims will not be detained. The Act makes no mention of protecting victims from being prosecuted for immigration infractions inadvertently committed while being trafficked. This gap will deter victims from reporting their cases, for fear of being arrested. Indeed, traffickers have used this possibility as a threat to coerce victims.

The right of victims to work and to have decent income is important for protection from further exploitation. Most victims of trafficking are attracted to Singapore by the prospect of earning an income, a bait used by traffickers in deceptive recruitment. Many victims would be reluctant to make a report if it means no income for their families during the time their cases are ongoing.

We have two recommendations. The Act needs to be amended to make it more comprehensive. The Inter-Agency Task Force should implement the Act in ways that uphold these rights. Only then will Singapore make real progress towards meeting international anti-trafficking standards.

This op-ed was first published in the Straits Times on 21 December, 2014

Vivienne Wee is AWARE’s second Research and Advocacy Director. She is concurrently Project Director of AWARE’s programme “Gender Equality Is Our Culture”, which is funded by UN Women and implemented jointly with Solidaritas Perempuan of Indonesia. A founding member of AWARE, Vivienne previously served on at least five Executive Committees and several sub-committees. She formerly chaired the national task force ‘Stop Violence Against Women!’, led by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations. As an anthropologist, Vivienne has worked extensively on gender and development, especially in relation to culture. She taught at the National University of Singapore, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and City University of Hong Kong. She is currently Associate Faculty at SIM University (UniSIM) in Singapore. She played a key role in initiating the Master’s Programme in Development Studies at City University of Hong Kong and the Master’s Programme in Community Leadership and Social Development at UniSIM. She has been involved in several multi-country networks and programmes, spanning Indonesia, Pakistan, as well as countries in the Middle East and Africa.

Goh Li Sian is the Research and Advocacy Coordinator at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). Prior to this, she completed an undergraduate degree in Law at the University at Oxford and a LLM in the London School of Economics. At AWARE, she coordinates several research projects relating to gender equality, with a special focus on the intersection of gender with socio-economic inequality in Singapore.

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