SINGAPORE: To combat human trafficking in Singapore, a new law - the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act - came into effect in March 2015. To date, three convictions have resulted from the eight cases prosecuted under the Act.
While this number seems low, cases of sexual exploitation or forced labour - involving workers who were tricked or coerced into coming to Singapore - may not be that uncommon.
Singapore Police Force (SPF) Deputy Superintendent Leow Teck Wee, the deputy head of the Specialised Crime Policy Branch, said in an interview that Singapore is an economic hub with a high flow of human traffic and the Government recognises that there could be "greater potential and opportunities" where victims may be exploited.
However, the actual number of people trafficked into the country has not been determined due to the complexity of gathering evidence and acquiring testimony.
One non-governmental organisation (NGO) did say it is handling more of such cases. Hagar, which helps women and children in Singapore and the region, said it saw 22 trafficking victims in Singapore in 2016 - a more than 50 per cent jump compared to the previous year. Many of the victims were women who came from countries in the Asian region.
“In recent years, we do see a lot more girls who are tricked here and being exploited in the labour market,” said Mr Michael Chiam, Hagar Singapore’s executive director.
The organisation works with two groups of victims: Those who were tricked into coming to Singapore to work as babysitters or performing artists but end up being forced to serve customers sexually; and those who obtain work visas but were then exploited by their employers. Mr Chiam said many of them were forced to work up to 16 hours a day. They were also not paid the salaries they were promised before arriving.
In 2010, the Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons was set up as part of efforts to tackle the issue. This was later followed by the enactment of the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act in March 2015, to give agencies like the SPF, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry of Health (MOH) power to investigate trafficking offences.
First-time offenders can face up to 10 years of jail, a fine of up to S$100,000 and/or six strokes of the cane. Repeat offenders may be sentenced to up to 15 years of jail, a fine of up to S$150,000 and mandatory caning of up to nine strokes.
All three convictions under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act have been sex trafficking cases, while the other five cases awaiting judgement involve two sex trafficking cases and three labour trafficking cases.
Muhammad Khairulanwar Rohmat was sentenced to 75 months' jail for recruiting two underage girls for the purpose of exploitation. (Photo: Elizabeth Goh)
WHAT CONSTITUTES HUMAN TRAFFICKING?
Professor Kumaralingam Amirthalingam from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Law said Singapore has adopted the definition of trafficking from the United Nation’s (UN) Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (also referred to as the UN TIP Protocol).
While the definition of trafficking is broad, there are three elements to which a trafficking offence can be made out, Prof Kumar said. “There has to be an act, which is your recruitment or harbouring. Then there have to be certain means, usually coercive, abusive means, where you've threatened somebody, or tricked or deceived someone into coming here to work. And then it has to be for the purpose of exploitation.”
Experts say the broad definition of trafficking, together with the nature of the crime, makes it hard for authorities to clamp down on perpetrators.
Prof Kumar explained it can be difficult to figure out when someone is being trafficked, as businesses which may harbour trafficked individuals can often be “disguised as a legitimate trade”, such as karaoke joints, bars or restaurant industry. Since the trafficking framework often involves transnational elements, authorities often face challenges in tracking down and gathering evidence from recruiters in source countries.
Victims, afraid and alone in a foreign environment, may also be reluctant to come forward because perpetrators may threaten to hurt them or their families back home. However, there could also be pragmatic considerations, like the loss of income. Prof Kumar pointed out that if victims get caught up in the trial process, even as witnesses, they will generally have to remain in Singapore and may not have the right to work.
CHALLENGES IN PROSECUTING SUCH CASES
While thousands of police officers in Singapore have been trained to look out for the telltale signs of trafficking, as well as to refer victims to relevant organisations for help, not all incidents are treated as trafficking cases. Some are dealt with under other laws which may carry lighter penalties.
DSP Leow said while traffickers can be charged under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, there are other laws that can be used against them such as the Penal Code and Women's Charter statutes, and legislation under the Employment Act.
Prof Kumar also pointed out the fact that the legislation is still “young” could be one of several reasons why there are “relatively few prosecutions” under the Act.
“Whenever there are new offences that come into play, there's quite a lot of training that is required, in terms of officers who are involved in enforcement. The prosecution and the police, they're used to a particular way of investigating offences, of charging these offences. So once you bring in a new framework, it takes time for these officers to get used to that.”
While those issues can be addressed through training and providing more information to officers, it will take time for the culture to change. Once that occurs, the NUS professor suggests that “we will start to see more of these offences being prosecuted".
NGOs that Channel NewsAsia spoke with say that when enforcement raids are conducted in entertainment venues like karaoke lounges or bars, women who work in these establishments are often investigated for solicitation or immigration offences.
The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a non-profit organisation that helps migrant workers, said some incidents involving foreign workers that they deem as cases of human trafficking are classified as salary disputes by authorities like the MOM. In some cases, workers claimed they were promised different, higher-paying jobs than those they found themselves in once having arrived.
PROMISES NOT KEPT
Uddin is one worker who was caught in such a situation.
Enticed by hopes of a better life, he left his native Bangladesh for Singapore in November 2014. He paid an agent the equivalent of S$12,000 to find him work as a construction site supervisor in Singapore. Through the agent, he was told that the job would pay him S$2,600 a month.
Uddin expected to pay off the money he borrowed for the agency fee “in around six months”. When he arrived, however, the job was not what he expected. Instead of a construction site supervisor, he ended up working as a labourer tasked with checking and transporting fire extinguishers.
On his second day at work, he was told to sign a stack of blank papers. Uddin recalls his boss telling him: “Here, write down your name, then write down your passport number, then below write down your name again, and then sign.” His lack of understanding of how the employment system in Singapore worked, together with a language barrier, made him believe that this process was part of the “official system”.
It was only later that he would discover that what he had signed were his pay slips indicating that he had received his full salary. In reality, he only received a fraction of what he was due: A figure that varied between S$500 to S$600 per month, instead of the S$2,600 that he was told he would be paid.
Before Uddin arrived in Singapore, his agent had told him his employer would provide him with a home. However, when he arrived, Uddin claims that his employer had told him to sleep on the factory floor temporarily while he arranged accommodation for him. This never happened.
He recalls sleeping on a thin mattress on the factory floor and that often he could not sleep because his mattress was infested with bed bugs. He says that he worked for the company for four months and 18 days, working nearly every day with 13-hour shifts, often with up to five hours of unpaid overtime in addition.
Uddin continued working at the factory out of fear that he would not be able to repay his debts otherwise.
He finally sought help from HOME after seeing a notice in his native language while walking around Little India one day, which classified his situation as a “clear case of labour trafficking”.
Mr Jevon Ng, a social work executive at HOME, said: “To consider a case trafficked, you must have the act, the means, and the purpose. So, the act is a recruitment. Simply, Uddin was represented with a job that was paying S$2,600. He was offered this job in Bangladesh and he was told he would get this job. He paid S$12,000 to get this job, but when he came to Singapore, he found that this was not the case and he was deceived into accepting a different job that paid a very low salary.
"That brings up the issue of deception and also the issue of economic debt that he was owed. At the same time, his boss made threats to repatriate him, should he not comply with his employer's demands - and that fulfils the criteria of having the means.”
Upon bringing the case to the MOM’s attention, the ministry, which co-chairs the Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons, together with the Home Affairs Ministry, said it would be "inappropriate" to classify Uddin's situation as a case of human trafficking because he was "not confined or forced" to work for his employer.
Instead, the MOM treated the incident as a salary dispute and HOME said this happens as workers cannot produce evidence of exploitation.
Mr Ng said: “In cases where there is deception, most of the time, there won't be a paper trail. An employer that plans to scam an employee would not give the employee a receipt.” He recalled that when Uddin approached HOME, he did not have any evidence with him, so the organisation gave him advice on how to look for evidence.
Experts noted there could also be other considerations when deciding whether cases should fall under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act.
Prof Kumar said it is necessary to take a “targeted approach”, for if a “blunderbuss approach” is taken, Singapore might "end up with a situation where we are over-criminalising”.
He added that if the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act is used too liberally, it risks downgrading “the importance of trafficking”, where the public could confuse trafficking crimes with other offences that do not fit the criteria.
SHIFTING THE BALANCE OF POWER
On MOM's end, it said that in 2016, it received about 9,000 salary-related claims involving about 4,500 employers. Ninety-five per cent of these were resolved, while the remaining 5 per cent were not. Out of these cases, one employer had appealed the order of the Labour Court by taking the case to the High Court, eight remain in business but have yet to comply with their orders, and 199 have either ceased operation or faced impending business closure due to financial difficulties.
From 2014 to 2016, 158 employers were convicted of salary-related offences, such as non-payment of wages. Such offences carry a fine of between S$3,000 and S$15,000 per charge, or imprisonment for a term not more than six months, or both.
For Uddin, his case was taken to the Labour Court and he managed to claw back some of his salary – about S$20,000 out of the S$29,000 that HOME claimed he was owed. But while his case is closed and he has found new work through the ministry’s Temporary Job Scheme, he is not allowed to leave the country due to other investigations against his former employer.
MOM said similar cases have come from sectors like construction, marine and manufacturing. Mr Raymond Tan, the director of Employment Standards Enforcement at MOM, said while they do see such cases, he urges workers to seek help from the ministry early to “improve their chances" of recovering their salary.
However, for many victims of trafficking, HOME said they may be reluctant to come forward if they are afraid they will be sent home. Another concern they may have is prosecution for false declaration if their qualifications were falsified in order to get a work permit to work in Singapore.
To tackle this, the NGO said more can be done to “recognise and address” power imbalances in the workplace. Said Mr Ng: “Power imbalances occur because workers are not sure about making complaints. Workers do not feel empowered to make these complaints because employers can choose to cancel their work permits at any point once the work relationship sours and repatriate them.”
Experts and welfare groups suggest that changes to legislation could be one way to overcome the challenges of prosecuting human trafficking cases. This could include giving victims immunity from being charged with other offences they may have committed through the course of their work, to encourage them to come forward.