The Elusive Fiend
Start any conversation about human trafficking with a Singaporean, and you’re likely to get a response that reflects a shocking ignorance of its prevalence on and through our shores. It is a subject that has been pointedly ignored in recent parliamentary discussions until last November when Parliament passed the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act. Six months later, Singapore still falls short in the local Trafficking of Persons (TIP) report, which begs the question—What more can be done?
Admittedly, Singapore has implemented several laws to criminalize human trafficking as seen in the Women’s Charter, the Children and Young Person’s Act and the Penal Code. In addition, the Ministry of Manpower is focused on ensuring workers are aware of their rights and police hotline numbers should the latter be compromised. However, one need only witness the nightly police raids at red light districts such as Geylang and Orchard Towers to see that these measures have not fully eradicated the problem.
Any country in the fight against trafficking understands that the fundamental issue lies in the covert, secretive nature of the transaction. Human trafficking is an activity that thrives in the shadows and it seems that Singapore has been shining the spotlight in all the wrong places. Trafficking cases brought to court often leave victims without government protection, as the law does not define trafficking in accordance with international standards. In 2013, the government substantiated a mere 21 cases out of 400 leads.
The lack of legal definition is closely linked to the inefficiency of victim identification. This relationship was addressed in the anti-trafficking bill, which emphasized that consent of the victim would not be an impediment to enforcement. However, the visionary behind the bill, Mr. Christopher DeSouza (Member of Parliament), explained that officials ‘on the ground’ would have the authority to judge if a person in a raid is a victim of trafficking. This elicited concern from civil society activists and organisations, which questioned if the Bill could serve as adequate protection if the victim’s fate was left to the subjective judgement of individual officers. Once again, ambiguity in the “administrative flexibility” of the law has allowed the beast that prowls our streets yet another opportunity to elude capture.
Off the streets, labour trafficking is another pressing issue that the Bill attempted to address. It intends to focus on “forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude.” The Bill does not allude to other exploitative practices such as restriction of movement (by withholding worker’s passports), wages and living conditions on the basis that such indicators are included under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA). Unfortunately, the EMFA fails to address these problems effectively as it seems to prioritise productivity-driven growth over issues such as long working hours and the lack of wage protection. Small wonder then that we have the third highest GDP per capita in the world but remain a destination country for labour trafficking.
The Bill, which took effect on March 1, also highlights a ‘victim-centric approach’ to frame the key pillars of the government’s efforts to combat human trafficking. In line with this approach, the Bill proposes the provision of temporary shelters and video-conferenced trials to better assist victims. Yet again, we see a failure to pick out the primary concerns of victims, which would undoubtedly include deportation or repatriation. The response to these concerns should be laws that provide victims with practical solutions such as alternative employment and a temporary stay visa. The government should be harnessing its resources to create specific mechanisms to ensure that victims of trafficiking are adequately protected and accommodated, preventing them from entering the vicious cycle once more.
According the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, Singapore remains below the minimum standard the curb human trafficking. While this has been the case for the last 4 years, I’m optimistic about the direction the government is taking and look forward to the day human trafficking is properly ensnared by the wrath of the law.