With the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons marked last Saturday, there is cause for us to review how well Singapore has done in combating human trafficking.
Low-wage migrant workers, who make up 30 per cent of our workforce, are particularly vulnerable to trafficking.
Non-governmental organisations like the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) handle cases where workers are deceived about the nature and conditions of their work but are prevented from leaving employment due to economic duress and work pass conditions.
These include the need to seek permission from the employer to change jobs and the uncertainty of gaining other employment, should workers raise a complaint.
Given the clandestine nature of the crime, often, the key to prosecuting traffickers is through the testimonies and cooperation of victims.
However, victims are reluctant to seek justice, and may even refuse to report their cases because of uncertainties regarding their legal status, fear of being prosecuted for legal infractions committed while being trafficked, and the pressure to continue to provide for their families.
In 2014, three Vietnamese who sought help from Home declined to pursue their case when they became aware that they would not be allowed to work because Vietnam is not a source country under the temporary job scheme extended to workers who are to remain in Singapore to assist with investigations.
Foreign domestic workers who are trafficked have found that they cannot switch sectors if they wish to continue working while investigations are under way.
Currently, only limited protection, including temporary shelter and counselling, is legislated. This is provided on a case-by-case basis.
The urgency to better protect victims is more real now that Singapore has ratified international conventions, namely the Palermo Protocol and the Asean Convention Against Trafficking In Persons, Especially Women and Children.
These treaties contain provisions for victims, such as physical and psychological recovery, medical care, housing, mental health counselling, job training, legal assistance, physical safety, the provision of temporary or permanent residence for victims, and the facilitation of their safe repatriation.
The Stoptraffickingsg campaign, backed by a coalition of NGOs, has recommended strengthening our anti-trafficking legislation by codifying protection measures, including the non-criminalisation of victims, the right to work, and shelter.
Key terms such as forced labour and coercion should be better defined.
Protection measures should not be dismissed as discretionary provisions but instead be regarded as integral to an effective anti-trafficking programme.
Tam Peck Hoon (Ms)
Head, Advocacy and Awareness
Campaign Manager, Stoptraffickingsg
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics