Migrant workers in Singapore “vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage”, says US TIP 2017 report

Posted by on July 14, 2017 in News, Our Stand

Transient Workers Count Too is deeply appreciative of the US State Department’s efforts at drawing attention to the evil of trafficking in persons, through its annual Trafficking in Persons Report.

The 2017 segment relating to Singapore can be found here: https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/countries/2017/271276.htm  Singapore was classed as Tier 2.

TWC2 notes in particular these comments in the report:

1.  Large numbers of migrant workers experience conditions indicative of labor trafficking in Singapore, and, although the government began to prosecute its first labor trafficking cases, it has yet to secure the conviction of a labor trafficker under the trafficking law. Authorities did not effectively identify victims compelled into service through psychological coercion, leaving some victims unidentified and subject to punishment or deportation.

2.  (Recommendations) …increase investigations and prosecutions of sex and labor trafficking offenses, including debt bondage,

3.  (Protection) Several NGOs reported officials failed to recognize key indicators of trafficking when interviewing potential victims, particularly in cases involving sex or labor exploitation through various forms of psychological coercion or debt bondage, and among migrant workers. NGOs reported authorities’ opaque victim identification and referral standards sometimes complicated effective use of the government’s referral mechanism.

4.   (Protection) … the government’s lack of detailed feedback regarding ongoing cases remained a problem for some NGOs and interfered with service providers’ ability to assist victims.

5.  (Prevention) NGOs reported migrant workers in Singapore face barriers to recovering unpaid wages, as their single-employer work permit makes them ineligible to change employers while the government considers their claim. Further, employers who were found at fault in civil cases sometimes failed to comply with court rulings in the employee’s favor and the government did not take action to enforce these decisions.

6. (Trafficking profile) … a transit country for Asian men subjected to forced labor on fishing vessels that transit through Singapore or its territorial waters.

7.  (Trafficking profile) Although Singaporean law limits agency fees and mandates prosecution for those who exceed them, many foreign workers assume large debts to recruitment agencies or individual recruiters in their home countries and sometimes in Singapore, making them vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage.

8.  (Trafficking profile) An NGO reported that some men are subjected to forced labor and abuse by captains on long-haul fishing vessels that depart from Singapore or dock in Singaporean ports, and that some agencies in Singapore use deceptive tactics to recruit Filipino and Cambodian men for this work.

Human trafficking is not a binary Yes/No. It represents an end of a continuum of exploitative and abusive practices. In TWC2’s opinion, the Singapore government adopts an overly conservative (narrow) definition of trafficking in persons, and certain behaviours generally regarded internationally as indicative of trafficking do not receive adequate attention from our government.

For example, using deception in recruitment and contract substitution after arrival in a country are considered trafficking practices. As TWC2 has pointed out repeatedly over the years, these practices are common and victims do not often get the redress they should via government processes.

Another example: the high recruitment costs that put foreign workers in situations akin to debt-bondage, where they have no meaningful bargaining power vis-a-vis their employers. They become vulnerable to psychological coercion. The unreasonable demands exacted of them by their employers, the salary deductions unilaterally imposed on them — a form of contract substitution — are likewise trafficking-like practices, since they can lead to conditions resembling forced labour. These too do not get adequate attention from the Singapore government, and workers often do not get redress. Moreover, TWC2 has documented many cases where the State failed to enforce payment of owed wages, even when a case has been ruled in the employee’s favour.

The regulation of work migration on our shores tends to be driven foremost by security considerations (including immigration security), and these impulses tend to justify highly restrictive rules that further increase migrant workers’ vulnerability. Tying them to specific employers without the freedom to change employers, requiring them to be repatriated at very short notice once a job ends, putting accommodation under the control of employers, are among the many examples of such restrictive practices that are State-initiated.

TWC2 would like the Singapore government to
(a) take effective action against high recruitment costs incurred by any migrant worker coming into Singapore, whether paid abroad or locally;
(b) allow all Work Permit holders to switch employers without having to obtain existing employers’ consent;
(c) recognise that any coercive behaviour exploiting workers’ debt situation and financial vulnerability, in order to obtain an advantage for the employer, would constitute trafficking and be liable to be prosecuted as such.

Particularly serious is inaction with respect to men on fishing vessels. International media have reported on horrendous abuses inflicted on them. Many of these vessels dock in Singapore and the crew transit through Singapore to and from their vessels. TWC2 would like the Singapore government to stop barring NGOs from access to the boats and their crew. Crews in transit should be allowed to enter Singapore (and not be confined to the boat) so that they can seek advice and assistance from NGOs should they be maltreated. Infringements committed by boat masters, recruiting and manning agencies with any connection to Singapore should be considered as coming under Singapore jurisdiction so that trafficking behaviour can be dealt with effectively.

 

 

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our
means.

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