TWC2 calls for practices of labour trafficking suffered by low wage migrant workers in all sectors of employment and foreign fishermen who dock in Singapore or on transit in the country to be addressed in the “Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill”.
In a 17-page document submitted via email on 18 April 2014 to the address listed on the website of REACH, Transient Workers Count Too called for MP Christopher De Souza to give equal attention to the heinous practice of labour trafficking as suffered by the people whose interests the organization represents, namely low-paid migrant workers in Singapore in all relevant employment sectors and foreign fishermen who dock in Singapore. The document contains detailed recommendations for MP De Souza to consider when drafting the “Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill” which he intends to table in parliament this year as a private member’s bill.
Ensuring that migrant workers have enough mobility to speak up, lodge complaints, if trafficked
Firstly, TWC2 urges MP De Souza and his team of legal drafters to advocate the merits of amending Singapore’s employment legislation and for more rigorous enforcement of existing laws where laws are already in place to address systemic factors that underscore the vulnerabilities of low-wage labour migrants to labour trafficking. Ideally, the following conditions should be put in place:
- migrant workers already in Singapore can seek new positions without the consent of their employers (subject to liberal MOM approval);
- administrative policies that limit the availability of ‘fresh overseas hires’ of migrant workers and to encourage employers to employ migrant workers who are already working in Singapore; and
- involuntary confinement and forced repatriation by employers and their agents be made illegal.
Forms of trafficking seen in migrant labour
The above recommendation is formulated based on experience dealing with actual cases of infringements of the Employment Act (EA) and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) whereby systemic factors are known to underpin practices that are deemed as indicators of labour trafficking such as:
- deceiving migrant workers of the nature of job and/or terms of employment;
- coercing migrant workers to sign new contracts that contain less favourable employment terms than those stated in the IPA upon their arrival in Singapore;
- creating a situation of debt bondage
- preventing migrant workers from accessing recourse from labour exploitation and seeking redress by means of physical assaults, verbal threats and wrongful confinement.
On the matter of definition of trafficking, TWC2 urges MP De Souza to employ fully the definition adopted by the UN in the Palermo Protocol so that forced labour and services, slavery and practices similar to slavery and servitude (all elements of labour trafficking) will be given equal consideration in the Bill alongside sexual exploitation. The organization also recommends that key terms such as ‘deceptive recruitment’, ‘indebtedness’ and ‘threats of repatriation’ used in the TIP definition to be elaborated upon or listed as examples of the means by which victims are kept in exploitative situations either in the Bill or its implementing regulations.
In the submission, TWC2 also voices its concern for the mixed messages during the period of public consultation exercise on whether the Bill will apply to the population of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in the country. It urges MP De Souza to be explicit in including domestic workers in the Bill to ensure substantive equality before the law so that potential cases of trafficking which involve FDWs cannot be ignored and to discourage perpetrators from thinking that their conduct does not constitute trafficking — thus permissible — and deter potential victims from reporting trafficking cases to the authorities.
Strengthening workers’ right to truthful documentation
On matters pertaining to evidentiary issues, TWC2 highlights the need to implement a system that encourages the creation of documentary evidence to enhance the government’s ability to successfully prosecute trafficking cases. The organization recommends that the Bill makes it a requirement for a written employment contract to be deposited at MOM by all vulnerable migrant workers and for a MOM officer to be present to get verbal confirmation from the worker (without the employer or employment agent being present) whether or not the contract reflects the conditions upon which she/he was recruited. Furthermore, the law should require that any subsequent contract made between the two parties that contain terms that are less favourable to the worker than the original contract shall be illegal, null and void unless the above procedures have been observed. TWC2 also recommends that the Bill should make electronic transfers of salary and pay slips mandatory.
In view of cases of infringements of EA and EFMA that have been dismissed by MOM because of the inability of the worker to provide physical evidence to support allegations, the organization calls for the Bill to reverse the onus of burden of proof on the accused person (employers, middlemen, labour management agents, manning agencies) to demonstrate that an alleged victim wasn’t trafficked, rather than the prosecutor needing to prove every aspect of the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
In the area of victim protection, TWC2 appeals to MP De Souza to provide a right for victims to seek alternative employment in Singapore and obtain a “fresh” work permit (subject to MOM approval) to ensure that reporting a trafficking offence does not compound the economic distress suffered by trafficked workers and to enable victims to be financially self-sufficient while investigations are being carried out. On the point of when one should qualify as a victim, TWC2 recommends that victims should qualify for protection from the point of coming to the attention of authorities until their case is resolved. TWC2 would also like to see the inclusion of a provision in the Bill for the ‘victim’ not to be subjected to prosecution under section 177 of the Penal Code for giving false evidence or related offences as has happened on several occasions of workers who are unable to prove a salary claim or a work injury claim if a criminal case cannot be successfully made out against an alleged trafficker.
Lastly, TWC2 urges the drafters of the Bill to consider the special needs of commercial fishermen whose situation differs from migrant workers employed under Singapore’s employment laws and, where necessary, to highlight relevant issues to their counterparts in various arms of government. In this area, the organization’s recommendations are focused on enhancing NGO access to potential victims, facilitating rescue of trafficked fishermen and their ability to file a complaint contextualized within the geography of the Jurong Port and the existing Seafarer’s Welfare Centre.
TWC2 also appeals to Mr De Souza to consider various measures as to how Singaporean authorities can readily identify and respond to instances of trafficking on foreign-flagged fishing vessels docking in Singapore and enforce Singapore’s proposed anti-trafficking law to the fullest extent. These measures include:
- undertaking a rigorous analysis of the extent to which Singapore may already have power under international law, for example the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to enforce its criminal laws against foreign-flagged ships;
- considering the adoption of an approach being considered by the New Zealand government that require foreign charter vessels within its waters (including fishing vessels within New Zealand fishing zones) to be reflagged as New Zealand vessels to enable its authorities to address the mistreatment and underpayment of foreign crews on fishing vessels and to prevent trafficked fishermen from falling through international law enforcement gaps.
- considering the use of multi-lateral agreements with other countries in the region to gain greater powers over vessels docking in Singapore, either through amending existing agreements, for example the Tokyo MOU, or forming new agreements.