Thursday, 17 April 2014

MP Christopher de Souza defends Bill on human trafficking

He highlights 'practical difficulties', assures added protection to victims
By Hoe Pei Shan, The Straits Times, 16 Apr 2014

MEMBER of Parliament Christopher de Souza has defended his proposed Bill to tackle human trafficking here, saying it is "actually very generous to the victim".

He was responding to civil society groups, which in an open letter yesterday, lamented the "serious limitations" of the planned legislation, highlighting three key issues: The Bill on the Prevention of Human Trafficking fails to clearly define who is a victim of sex trafficking. It also does not appear to address "exploitative practices", such as poor living and working conditions of migrant workers.

Third, the proposed measures to protect victims fall short as they do not include "finding alternative employment or arranging a temporary stay visa", wrote Association of Women for Action and Research executive director Corinna Lim on behalf of several other groups and activists.

Mr de Souza, who is an MP for the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, told The Straits Times that he appreciated the intention behind the letter. But he added that since proving trafficking cases could take as long as two years, "hard-wiring extreme rights may present practical difficulties". But "we will pull out the stops if it is a case of genuine trafficking".

He is "exploring parallel guidelines to assist helpless victims" beyond counselling and temporary shelters, which are part of the proposed Bill.

He said additional protection and rehabilitation measures could be provided without having to be legislated. These could be overseen by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, for instance.

Mr de Souza also explained that the Bill will address situations in which victims are deceived into providing services beyond what they had originally agreed to, such as women hired for waitressing but tricked into prostitution.

The Bill will also stick to definitions of trafficking which are internationally accepted.

Private member's Bills, introduced by MPs who are not Cabinet ministers, are generally rare. This will also be the first piece of dedicated legislation here dedicated to criminalising human trafficking for purposes of sex, labour and organ transplants. It targets traffickers who use Singapore as a transit point, as well as Singaporeans who are involved overseas.

A spokesman for the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking-in-Persons confirmed it had received the letter and said that the feedback will be taken into consideration in the drafting of the proposed Bill with Mr de Souza. The Bill, which is expected to be tabled in Parliament by November, had its final public consultation session yesterday.

Members of the public can still send their feedback via the Government's Reach portal - - until 5pm on Friday.

Guidelines to protect human trafficking victims during investigations being considered
By Sara Grosse, Channel NewsAsia, 15 Apr 2014

A set of guidelines for victims of human trafficking while investigations are ongoing is being considered.

Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Mr Christopher de Souza, who had proposed a Private Member's Bill on the Prevention of Human Trafficking, said feedback on the proposed Bill had called for victims of human trafficking to be protected during investigations.

Mr de Souza said the guidelines will likely be separate from the legislation.

He elaborated: "Practically speaking, a person is not trafficked until the person is proven to have been trafficked. And that could take a year, a year and a half -- investigations, trial, (and) verdict.

“So if we were to accord the victims a slew of rights, a menu of rights for a good one-and-a-half years, and it is proven eventually at trial that the person wasn't trafficked, then I would say let us be a little more cautious in trying to hardwire the rights into the Bill, and give the discretion to the people who know best -- the counsellors, the enforcement officers."

Some 80 participants attended the fourth and final public consultation session on the proposed Bill on Tuesday evening.

The proposed Bill would be a dedicated law to criminalise Trafficking in Persons for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labour and exploitation by the removal of organs.

A comprehensive suite of measures to support victims, tougher penalties and targeting all parties involved in the trafficking chain were some views expressed at public consultations held recently with 200 individuals.

They include civil society groups, academics, industry representatives, religious groups, grassroots community, students, and interested members of the public.

Many gave feedback that Singapore's definition of Trafficking in Persons should be closely aligned to international benchmarks.

Civil society groups such as AWARE, HOME, Project X, Workfair Singapore and civil society activists also shared their concerns over limitations of the proposed Bill.

They called for specific criteria to ensure that victims of sex trafficking are properly identified, rather than let the decision be made to the "subjective judgement of individual officers".

They also felt that the proposed Bill was inadequate in providing protection and support to marginalised migrant workers in certain industries including fishing, construction and domestic work.

In response, Mr de Souza said: "Some of the issues that have been raised on labour trafficking, on consent on deception, I think let us get the Bill onto a good foundation to start with.

“My priority is that it is enforceable. We shouldn't be trying to put in too much at the foundational level, and at the start. Let it have a gestation period of a few months, a few years, to be enforced. If there are gaps, let's have a continuing dialogue to see how we can plug those gaps."

The Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons also responded to the suggestions from civil society groups.

It said: "The Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons has received the joint open letter issued by civil society groups including AWARE, HOME, Project X, Workfair, and two civil society activists, sharing their views and concerns on the proposed Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill.

“We will take these feedback and views into consideration when discussing and preparing the proposed Bill with Mr Christopher de Souza, and would like to thank the groups for their inputs."

Mr de Souza expects to table the Bill in November. 

Law must not overlook labour trafficking
Bar on what is forced labour should not be set so high that new law ends up nailing no one
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 27 Apr 2014

A group of Bangladeshi men arrive in Singapore expecting to earn a basic monthly salary of $600 plus overtime because that is what they were told back home when they were recruited to be construction workers.

The amount is stated in the approval letter from Singapore's Ministry of Manpower (MOM) which they receive before they board the flight.

Within days of arriving, however, their employer gives them the lowdown: their basic pay will be $520, and they will have to sign a fresh contract reflecting the reduced terms.

Having taken loans of more than $3,000 to land their jobs here, the men sign on the dotted line.

If they refuse, they know, they might be sent home penniless to face a huge debt.

They start work and soon learn that other workers have been similarly deceived by the same employer, who also makes them work extra hours without overtime pay. There are illegal deductions too and some months their basic salary dips to below $200.

This is a hypothetical case, but such practices are not uncommon here, say migrant worker advocates who deal with foreign workers in various states of distress.

If migrant workers facing such multiple forms of abuse complained in Europe, the United States, Canada or Australia, their allegations, if true, could be prosecuted under laws banning human trafficking. In those countries, the law covers vulnerable migrant workers who are deceived or coerced into commercial sex or labour and exploited.

Singapore is planning a dedicated law to combat human trafficking, but judging by discussions so far, such cases may fall outside its purview. Public consultations on the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill, likely to be introduced in Parliament by November this year, ended on April 18. It covers sex and organ trafficking, which are already illegal here, as well as labour trafficking which is not prohibited under current laws. The Bill is being initiated by Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza, who has spoken up against sex trafficking since 2008.

The proposed law will give law enforcement agencies powers to crack down on organised criminal syndicates that run human trafficking rings and increase maximum penalties.

The public consultations indicate that much of its focus may be on fighting sex trafficking, where vulnerable migrant workers, mainly women and teenagers, are lured here with the promise of jobs as waitresses, maids or factory workers, only to be forced into prostitution. While sex trafficking is abhorrent and must be weeded out, migrant worker advocates and academics alike worry that labour trafficking - potentially a far larger problem in Singapore - may not get the attention it deserves in the Act.

As of last December, there were 985,600 foreign work permit holders here, up from 856,300 four years earlier. Aside from maids, most do low-wage blue-collar jobs in construction sites, shipyards and factories. Their numbers have risen despite higher costs to companies to hire these workers - in the form of higher foreign worker levies.

Foreign worker advocates warn that as levies go up, unscrupulous companies may try to recover their higher costs by paying workers less and making them work longer hours.

Even if fewer than 1 per cent of workers are exploited, their numbers could run into the thousands. The authorities need to investigate these cases and determine which ones could qualify as labour trafficking.

At the final public consultation session on April 15, Mr de Souza provided three hypothetical examples of what could constitute labour trafficking under the new law.

The first involved a woman who was promised a job as a maid but upon arrival was forced to be a prostitute. The perpetrators of such a crime can already be prosecuted for sex trafficking under existing laws here.

The second involved a fisherman forced to work on a ship at sea with little or no pay. A small number of such cases have been reported when ships dock here.

The third was a worker brought here against his will and forced to work for little or no pay. Such cases are virtually unheard of.

While deceiving workers about the nature of work must be outlawed, it is deception on work conditions and practices that is far more common here and the new anti-trafficking law should cover that as well, say migrant worker advocates.

Unlike an ordinary labour offence - like a company not paying its workers - labour trafficking tends to involve multifaceted forms of exploitation.

The Bill intends to criminalise the "selling, buying and hiring of persons for the purposes of labour exploitation", but so far has stopped short of explaining what constitutes labour exploitation.

In a case here, an employer asked 22 construction workers to work a 32-hour shift without any rest. He promised to pay a part of their wages - which had not been paid in six months - if they agreed. They did so, but no money was forthcoming. The boss then asked them to sign new contracts and threatened to send them home if they complained to MOM. Right now, there is no clarity on whether such an egregious case would be considered human trafficking.

The authorities here have stressed that migrant workers who face exploitative work conditions can seek redress under existing laws, such as the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and the Employment Act rather than the proposed human trafficking act.

But there is no publicly available data on how many worker exploitation cases are successfully prosecuted under our existing labour laws each year. In the absence of data, migrant worker activists have charged that the laws are poorly enforced. Besides, these laws 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.

Indeed, for any trafficking law to be effective, one of the most important tasks is to draw up a comprehensive list of indicators on what constitutes trafficking. The International Labour Organisation has a set of nearly 70 indicators of labour trafficking.

Strong indicators of labour trafficking include excessive working days or hours, deception about the job, debt bondage and isolation, confinement and surveillance. Singapore needs to draw up its own list.

There is also a need to define terms such as exploitation, coercion and the abuse of a position of vulnerability, all of which are enshrined in United Nations' anti-trafficking laws.

Changes in the foreign worker recruitment system could also help mitigate the risks of labour trafficking. Unfair practices such as arbitrary contract substitution or forcing workers to work excessive hours occur, charge migrant workers' groups, because companies know that having incurred heavy debts back home, the workers are in no position to bargain. One way forward is to allow work permit holders greater flexibility to change jobs. Currently, if a worker complains, he risks losing his job and being sent home to big debts.

Tackling workers' debt is another way forward. Some commentators have suggested that over time, employers - including maid employers - could bear the recruitment fees so that foreign workers will not be in such heavy debt and in bondage to recruitment agents. This will take time as it will involve higher costs for industry employers and for households. But it could prove more effective than foreign worker levies in keeping worker numbers in check.

Another key issue for those drafting the Bill to consider is whether Singapore needs supplementary regulations requiring big companies to show that their supply chains are free from forced labour.

Above all, we need to ensure that the definitions of what constitutes labour trafficking are not left vague or the bar set so high that the law ends up nabbing and nailing no one. That would be the same as not having a law at all.

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