Monday 24 March 2014

Taking aim at human trafficking

Singapore is taking a big step in its fight against those who trick, threaten and transport vulnerable workers with the drafting of a dedicated law. What gaps must it address?
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2014

FOR about a year, Erica Lazaro (not her real name), 23, was a dancer-cum-model in a Manila pub. On some nights, she danced sensually to English and Tagalog songs. On others, she was part of a fashion show so customers would stay and buy more drinks.

It was showtime rather than sleaze, and the money was good - the equivalent of $500 a month. Still, like millions of her compatriots, she dreamed of working abroad to earn even more.

When a former colleague working in Singapore said the same job there paid at least double the money, she leapt at the chance.

Her friend introduced her to an employment agent who told her she would dance and serve drinks at a Singapore pub for a basic $800 a month. In addition, she would get half the money for all drinks she got customers to buy. "They told me I could easily earn $1,000 or more each month."

But she would have to pay $3,800 in agent fees, including the airfare, to be deducted from her salary in instalments. This would take less than four months to pay.

What she insists she was not told then was that, unlike in Manila, she would also need to have paid sex with clients.

A performing artiste's work permit was processed quickly. In two weeks, she was on a plane to Changi Airport, traversing a well-worn migrant route and brimming with hope.

But within a day of arriving in late March 2012, Ms Lazaro was told that she had to sell $200 worth of drinks a night at the Arab Street pub where she worked. If she did not meet the "quota", she would be fined. She would also be fined if she gained weight, refused to wear a G-string or fell sick.

When she failed to sell enough drinks, her Singaporean boss began pressuring her to go out with clients and sell her body.

She says she refused initially and wanted to return home.

"But he said I could not leave without repaying my debts," the soft-spoken woman told Insight in an interview last week.

The way she tells it, her passport was confiscated and during the day, she was locked up in an apartment in the Marine Parade area with nine colleagues, and allowed only one meal a day.

Finally, Ms Lazaro gave in, and had paid sex with strangers.

"I had no choice," she says, adding that in five months of work, she did not get a single cent. Her employer kept all the money. "No one told me in Manila that my job would involve prostitution or that my debts would keep multiplying. Or I would never have come."

People like Ms Lazaro who were deceived or forced into labour or the sex trade here will soon get more protection under a proposed Private Member's Bill against human trafficking.

Public consultations on what the law should include began here this week and will continue until April 18.

The Bill is being proposed by Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza and is backed by the Government.

Need for a single law

HUMAN trafficking occurs when vulnerable men, women and children are forced, tricked or coerced into commercial sex or servitude, in cities or countries other than where they grew up. It is a significant transnational crime.

"We need a standalone law to plant a legal flag that human trafficking is a serious crime and will not be condoned in Singapore," says Mr de Souza.

Singapore already has legal provisions against some elements of human trafficking, but these are spread across disparate laws, he points out.

The Women's Charter, for instance, outlaws trafficking of women for sexual exploitation, and the Children's and Young Person's Act does the same for children. Some elements of what could be construed as labour trafficking, on the other hand, are captured under the Penal Code and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.

However, "a single, dedicated law to combat human trafficking will be more effective and easier to enforce", says Mr de Souza, who has been speaking in Parliament on the subject since 2008.

He notes that Singapore already has a precedent in the Misuse of Drugs Act, a standalone law against drug trafficking.

Mr de Souza, who was once a government lawyer who worked on sex trafficking cases, has drawn up an initial draft.

The planned law will make sex trafficking an offence and also forbid forced labour and organ trafficking. It is meant to serve as a deterrent, with penalties adequately reflecting the severity of the offences. It will be gender neutral, and consent of a victim to cross borders or be exploited will not impede enforcement.

Traffickers who take victims through Singapore for the purpose of being exploited in another country would be prosecuted, as would Singaporeans who traffick migrants overseas.

Officials, academics and activists laud the Bill, but have plenty of suggestions on what it should include.

Ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, says that besides being a deterrent, the law should provide for enough shelters offering temporary accommodation for prosecution witnesses in trafficking cases. It should also allow greater flexibility in job change for work- permit holders so ill-treated workers can find a new employer. Academic Sallie Yea wants clear sets of indicators on what constitutes trafficking. Indeed, the public consultation process will be useful in establishing how to define trafficking.

Craft it too loosely, and bad labour conditions or practices - such as asking a domestic worker to take compensation in lieu of even just one day off a month - might be misconstrued. Define it too tightly, and unscrupulous employers who systematically abuse, exploit and coerce workers could be let off the hook.

Mr de Souza is acutely aware of the need for the law to strike the right balance. "We don't want to understretch, but at the same time, we don't want to promise something we cannot deliver," he says.

Lack of data

THERE are no official figures on how many migrant workers are trafficked into Singapore.

The authorities investigated 53 reports of sex trafficking last year. Five led to prosecution. Another 49 reports with elements of labour trafficking were also investigated here in the same period. Most investigations are ongoing.

In one horrifying case, a 17-year-old from China was beaten and drugged before being brought here to work as a prostitute last May and made to serve 150 clients in 15 days. Her pimp was sentenced to six years in jail.

Dr Yea, who has been researching human trafficking in Singapore since 2009, believes the official numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

The assistant professor from the National Institute of Education has conducted in-depth interviews with around 130 migrant women from the Philippines and Indonesia who worked in the nightlife entertainment and commercial sex industry here.

More than three in four of these women, she says, were trafficked. Many had run away and sought help from embassies and non-profit organisations. Yet, fewer than 10 reported the crime to the Singapore authorities, largely because they feared they could face charges for visa violations. While prostitution is not a crime in Singapore, foreigners are prohibited from working in the commercial sex industry.

Most of the Filipinas interviewed by Dr Yea were single mothers with at least a high school diploma and had been promised work as waitresses, domestic helpers or retail assistants, only to find, once arriving here, that the job involved paid sex.

The Indonesians were mostly childless, single and less educated. Many had been deceived or sold into the thriving sex trade in Batam and, ground down by their plight, then moved here voluntarily to work in the sex industry.

Dr Yea highlights a need for more data to help achieve more convictions for human trafficking. She says: "Right now, there is not enough evidence that much of that is happening."

Low penalties for trafficking offences here is another issue that the new law needs to rectify, say activists. Under the Women's Charter, the maximum prison term for trafficking a woman or a girl is five years.

In a high-profile case last December, a pub owner who arranged for 26 Filipinas to offer clients sexual services was jailed 18 months and fined $3,000.

In the United States, some penalties for sex trafficking range from a mandatory minimum of 10 years in jail to life imprisonment.

Tending to the victims

ANY new law, to be effective, must also enable quick resolution of cases, say activists and embassy officials.

The process of investigating cases and prosecuting traffickers can drag on for a year or more, points out Third Secretary and Vice-Consul Oliver C. Delfin from the Philippine Embassy.

Victims who are often prosecution witnesses are required to remain in Singapore during this time. "This is difficult for victims as most are eager to return home after their ordeal," says Mr Delfin, whose work involves assisting Filipina victims of sex trafficking.

The Inter-agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons, the government body to fight trafficking here, says it is looking at ways to shorten the timeline and strengthen the investigation processes for trafficking cases.

Take Ms Lazaro. She has been here for more than 18 months since she was caught in a raid in August 2012. One of her bosses has already been convicted, but his partner is missing.

She says that although she is here to help the Singapore authorities prosecute a trafficker, she is being financially supported by a friend, and not any government organisation. She lives with the friend and her family.

Indeed, the new law must take a "victim-centred" approach to be effective, say activists such as executive director Jolovan Wham of Home, an anti-trafficking organisation.

"Without protection and support, victims will be unwilling to report their cases and the new law will fail to serve as an effective tool of prosecution and deterrence," says Mr Wham.

Places such as Taiwan and the US already offer much of this.

In Taiwan, which passed a dedicated law to fight human trafficking in 2009, victims are required to be given access to jobs, counselling, accommodation, legal aid and vocational training. Those who cannot work are even given a stipend. Social workers accompany victims to court. The US also has similar provisions, all funded by the federal government.

Singapore, too, has a scheme which enables migrants to work while their former employers are being investigated for trafficking or other offences. But the Ministry of Manpower's Temporary Job Scheme has limitations that the new law needs to address, says Mr Wham.

For instance, while all victims can apply for work permits under the scheme, employers can only hire citizens from "approved source countries". So Vietnamese trafficking victims, for instance, cannot work while cases are being investigated because Vietnam is not an approved source for hiring work-permit holders.

Mr Delfin is among those who would like to see officers better trained to chase leads on their own, instead of putting the full weight of prosecution on vulnerable victims. And Dr Yea says the biggest challenge is not the trafficking law, but how to "enable active enforcement". "It doesn't matter how good the law is if conviction rates remain low and there is no respect for the victims it is meant to protect," she says. "That's what we need to focus on - and change."

Mr de Souza, for his part, promises that the law will aim to quickly detect and punish the guilty and protect the innocent.

"But above all, it must be enforceable," stresses Mr de Souza. "This is not going to be just an academic piece of legislation we can put on the shelf."

What is human trafficking?
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2014

MENTION human trafficking, and most would think of the misery of people being traded as if they are possessions or slaves, as somehow less "human".

But a look at a globally accepted definition gives a fuller extent of what it involves.

This is in a United Nations Protocol definition that government agencies here have been using while investigating cases for the past few years, although Singapore is not yet a signatory.

The definition is: "Trafficking in persons is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat, use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, the abuse of power, a position of vulnerability, the giving or receiving of payments, or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation."

The treaty goes on to list broad types of exploitation which could be construed as trafficking, including sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

The UN's Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children - commonly known as the Palermo Protocol - has been signed by close to 150 countries.

Singapore has said it will sign the treaty when domestic measures are put in place to adhere to it. The dedicated trafficking law - which is expected to adhere to the UN definition - is being seen as a step in that direction.

The UN says most countries are affected by human trafficking, whether as an origin, transit or destination for victims.

Singapore is primarily regarded as a "destination" country where impoverished migrants from neighbouring countries are brought in by criminal syndicates for exploitation.

The public can give feedback on the Trafficking in Persons Bill until April 18. E-mail or go to

Task force highlights 'milestone measures'
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2014

SEVERAL measures introduced by the Government over the past year or so have been hailed as milestones by the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons (TIP).

The task force, set up in 2010, is made up of officials from the police and the immigration authorities, and the ministries of Home Affairs, Manpower (MOM), Foreign Affairs and Social and Family Development, among others.

The measures that the task force noted range from making it compulsory to give maids a weekly rest day to imposing a cap on salary deductions.

The compulsory day off - or pay in lieu - was introduced in January last year. Not only does it give foreign domestic workers a break from work, but it may increase opportunities to seek help for those who are distressed.

Another measure was the setting up of a specialist sex trafficking team by the police in February last year. This is made up of investigation and intelligence officers who work together to detect trafficking syndicates. A specialised team to enforce labour trafficking is also being set up.

Last November, the MOM announced changes to the Employment Act that included a new 25 per cent sub-cap imposed on deductions to employees' salaries for accommodation, amenities and services. This is meant to prevent excessive deductions being made to their salaries.

A task force spokesman told The Straits Times that officer training has also been ramped up, as has the monitoring of cases.

She said the task force is working closely with MP Christopher de Souza on his Private Member's Bill to combat human trafficking.

The task force fights trafficking through a four-way approach: by trying to prevent the crime, prosecute perpetrators, protect victims and work in partnership with like-minded agencies in Singapore and overseas.

Specific initiatives under each of the four areas have been charted in the National Plan of Action. These were launched in 2012 and will run until next year. The plan acknowledges that as people move across borders in search of economic opportunities, opportunities are created for traffickers to exploit individuals with empty promises of good jobs and pay.

As Singapore is an attractive hub of economic activity with a high flow of people, it is regarded as an attractive destination by human trafficking syndicates, according to the plan.

"The task force recognises that TIP is an inherently transnational and organised crime which cannot be tackled by the Government alone," said its spokesman. "We will continue to work together to ensure that this heinous crime does not take root in Singapore."

Pub waitress forced to entertain customers
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2014

A POSTER at a small provision store in China advertising jobs in faraway Singapore altered Ms Li Xiu Ying's (name changed) life forever.

On a whim, the impoverished mother of one decided to apply, an act that entangled her in a web of danger and deceit that she is not free of even today - so much so that some family details have been withheld in this story for their protection.

What she can reveal is that her husband earns around 20,000 yuan (S$4,000) a year from running a small business. With their young son growing up fast, money had been tight.

She had been keen to work in a factory in Singapore as she knew someone who had done so before.

But when she met the employment agent who advertised the jobs, he suggested that she try her luck in Singapore's fast-growing food and beverage sector instead.

"I was told to apply for a job at a pub as there were plenty of vacancies," the 33-year-old tells Insight in Mandarin.

The job was described as serving food and drinks, and cleaning the pub after hours. Her monthly salary: $1,000 plus tips.

Ms Li had to pay 20,000 yuan in agent's fees and another 5,000 yuan for her flight ticket to Singapore, which she borrowed from friends and relatives.

She signed the contract and was soon on a plane to Singapore.

However, her workplace proved to be a Chinatown KTV lounge. On her arrival, although it was early evening, her "colleagues" were decked out in garish makeup and sexy short dresses.

Ms Li was given a similar dress and told to sing and entertain clients.

She also had to drink with them, straightaway.

"I was upset, I had never dressed that way before, but decided not to complain since it was my first day," she says.

As she recounts her tale to Insight, the young mother, face scrubbed clear of make-up, and wearing an old black T-shirt and fraying shoes, looks a far cry from the seductress her former job required her to be.

On her second day in Singapore, her female boss took out a copy of a new contract written in Chinese for her to sign.

The clauses left her horrified and helpless.

Ms Li claims she was told that she must be personally responsible for customers spending at least $5,000 each month at the pub through the sale of drinks, tips from song-and-dance shows she did and if, all else failed, by offering paid sex.

If she did not meet the quota, she was told she would be fined $3,000.

As she did not have any money to pay, it would just be added to her "debts".

She also had to pay her own foreign worker levy and accommodation expenses.

The list went on.

She says that initially she was not forced to offer sexual services, but as her "debts" increased, the pressure was piled on.

Then one night, a month later, her employer told her a client had offered to pay $2,000 for sex with her.

"She said if I did not sleep with this guy, she would send word out to my family in China that I was a prostitute.

Ms Li says she fainted in distress and had to be taken to hospital.

A colleague - not her boss - paid for her hospital expenses.

She eventually gave in to sleeping with clients in the hope of earning enough to pay back her "debts" and leave.

But it was never enough. The second month, she claims, she earned $8,000 for the boss, but was paid only $1,500.

"That's when I realised that however hard I worked, whatever pain I suffered, they would always keep taking away my earnings from me," she says rapidly, her face contorted with anger.

"It was no use."

She ran away shortly afterwards, and with the help of friends was referred to Home, which fights human trafficking.

She has been given a job at a kopitiam under the Ministry of Manpower's Temporary Job Scheme.

Her employer is being investigated.

Meanwhile, Ms Li lives in fear of being accosted by her former bosses.

She hopes they will be jailed one day, not just for her own protection, but so that they do not continue to recruit innocent women from overseas.

But most of all, she just wants to continue working in Singapore so that she can repay her debts and begin doing what she came here to do in the first place.

"All I really want is to work hard and support my family."

32-hour work shift without rest - is that human trafficking?
The public consultation on a planned law to fight human trafficking began last week. In the second of a two-part report on what it should contain, Senior Correspondent Radha Basu reports on the complex issue of trafficking in labour
The Sunday Times, 23 Mar 2014

An employer asks 22 construction workers to work a 32-hour shift without any rest.

He promises to pay a part of their wages - which have not been paid in six months - if they agree to the inhuman hours. They do so, but no money is forthcoming.

The boss then asks them to sign new contract papers and threatens them with repatriation with the help of repatriation agents if they dare complain to the Ministry of Manpower.

Under international definitions of human trafficking - where vulnerable people are forced or deceived into sex work or servitude - the employer would likely be charged with labour trafficking, says academic Sallie Yea, who reported the case to the authorities here after interviewing all the workers.

But in Singapore, the case may not be treated as trafficking, even if a Private Member's Bill on the Prevention of Human Trafficking is passed by Parliament.

Indeed, what constitutes labour trafficking is set to be one of the more difficult issues to be debated in the public consultation process for the Bill, which began last week.

More than 50 people, including academics, students, activists and business representatives, attended the first session. Three more sessions will be held over the next month.

The draft Bill has a section on offences related to "compulsory labour and slavery". It intends to criminalise acts such as the "selling, buying and hiring of persons for the purpose of labour trafficking". Consent of the victim will not be an impediment to enforcement.

A key task ahead is for the Bill to define and give examples of what kinds of acts could be construed as labour trafficking, say the groups working with migrant workers.

The International Labour Organisation has a comprehensive set of nearly 70 indicators on what could constitute labour trafficking. These were formulated for Europe and are grouped into three categories - strong, medium and weak.

Strong indicators of labour trafficking include excessive working days or hours, deception about the nature of the job, debt bondage and isolation, confinement and surveillance.

Debt bondage occurs when a migrant worker cannot leave an exploitative job because he has racked up big debts, usually to pay for recruitment fees.

"What we need is a clear set of such indicators on what will constitute labour trafficking offences in Singapore," said Dr Yea, an assistant professor from the National Institute of Education who has researched sex and labour trafficking in Singapore since 2009.

At the first public consultation on the Bill last Wednesday, participants tried to come up with their own set of indicators for labour trafficking. These included contract substitution or deceit about terms of contract, excessive work and work for little or no pay, withholding salary, threat of repatriation, unsafe working conditions, restrictions on freedom of movement and debt bondage.

Dr Yea told the group that one of the main problems in identifying trafficking cases is how many of such indicators a potential victim must fulfil in order to qualify as being trafficked. "That's a key challenge we must address," she said.

Addressing participants' concerns, MP Christopher de Souza, the man behind the Private Member's Bill, pointed out that there are several existing laws under the Penal Code and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (Efma) to penalise employers guilty of offences such as not paying or underpaying or incarcerating workers.

"Such acts are already illegal - and will remain so. But I have reservations about notching these up a level to trafficking," he said.

Activists such as Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of Home, an anti-trafficking non-governmental organisation, counter that the Efma and Penal Code do not adequately address some fundamental elements of human trafficking such as deception and coercion, forced labour and the abuse of a victim's vulnerability.

"There is a big difference between individual acts of labour law violation - such as not paying a worker's salary - and human trafficking, which involves multiple, systematic forms of exploitation and abuse," he said.

He hopes the Singapore law will reflect the ILO definition of forced labour which is "all work or service exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which a person has not offered himself voluntarily".

While sex trafficking has generally received more attention than labour trafficking, and is more accepted as a problem, Home estimates that instances of labour trafficking here may be far higher. "This is a problem that cannot be ignored, but one that will require both legal and cultural change in order to stop," said Mr Wham.

Whether offences against maids will be prosecuted under the new anti-trafficking law was another concern raised at Wednesday's session.

Mr de Souza said domestic workers would not be excluded "because we believe in equality before the law".

"However, we should look at the situation rather than the occupation to determine whether someone is trafficked or not," he said. "And only the most egregious cases will qualify."

The Bill aims to act as a deterrent against traffickers, he added. "But at the same time, it will help offer compassion to helpless victims; to respect their human dignity."

Meanwhile, experts have suggested other ways to help reduce chances of labour trafficking. One way is to allow foreign work permit holders greater flexibility to change jobs. "The reason many workers put up with exploitative conditions is that complaining will almost certainly make them lose their job," said Mr Wham.

Tackling the debt burden workers face is another way forward. Ambassador At Large Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, said that it would be good if employers - including those who hire domestic workers - could bear the recruitment fees so that foreign workers will not be in such heavy debt and in bondage to the recruitment agents.

"When they have to pay back debt, it is highly likely that a worker would stay in the same job even if he is mistreated," she said.

However she acknowledged that even if the suggestion is taken up, it will take time to be implemented as it involves higher costs for industry employers and for households.

But on its own, getting employers to bear the recruitment fees is not the panacea, she said. Workers should know what employers are doing on their behalf.

"It will produce better and loyal workers and, dare I say, higher productivity," she said.

Company Charged
The Sunday Times, 23 Mar 2014

The Singapore branch of a Korean company, Woolim Plant Engineering & Construction Company, was charged in the State Courts earlier this month with 15 counts of making false statements to the Ministry of Manpower when applying for work passes, by declaring salaries higher than the amounts actually paid to its foreign employees.

The case was lodged under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.

If convicted, the employer can be fined up to $20,000 and imprisoned for up to two years on each charge.

A group of 15 Bangladeshi construction workers had alleged that although they had been promised $800 in basic monthly wages, some received much less.

The ministry said in a statement that it is currently investigating similar false declaration cases involving 75 employers and 230 foreign employees.

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