Grappling with trafficking is like nailing jelly to a wall

Posted by on March 10, 2018 in Articles, Facts, research, analysis, Happenings

Former president of TWC2, John Gee, was a panellist at a human trafficking forum at the National University of Singapore’s Stephen Riady Global Centre on Saturday 27 January 2018.

In his talk, titled ‘Nailing jelly to the wall’, he drew attention to how terms and labels can be misconstrued, and responses can vary greatly. For example, the response may be one of heavy policing, or a tendency to treat undocumented migrants as criminals.

He gave the example of the difficulties with the term “modern slavery’, used to refer to contemporary trafficking. This may be intended as a catchy term with the power to shock and move people to action. But arguably, however bad conditions are for those victimised by modern-days methods, they aren’t really the same as experienced by victims in centuries past, when people were captured through war or raids, held for life, branded and savagely beaten — the ultimate evil. For those who are descended from such family histories, the use of the term ‘modern slavery’, especially when used too loosely, debases their history. It’s a controversial thing.

The other danger about over-focussing on trafficking, especially when cast as ‘modern slavery’, is the tendency to suggest that everything else pales into insignificance. The result may be an inadequate response to many other abuses.

John referred to the UN’s Palermo Protocol, which sets out a long list of abuses that make up human trafficking. He cautioned against using the list mechanistically. Indeed, to over-focus on the question of how many boxes need to be checked to make a case of trafficking, is to miss the fact that even checking one box is an abuse suffered by someone.

Moreover, many of the same abuses are a daily reality in many migrant workers’ lives, for example, deception at point of recruitment, contract substitution, and the taking away of personal documents. We need to deal with these abuses as they occur. Whether we label them as trafficking is less important.

When we investigate and rectify these problems, not only will conditions for migrant workers be improved, they are also measures to isolate the more atrocious cases.

Eight trafficking cases in 2017

Also on the panel was Tan Fang Qun… of the Ministry of Manpower.

Among the facts he mentioned in his talk was that in the last year, the ministry found eight substantiated cases of trafficking. Three cases are now under prosecution.

He also outlined the features of these case that led the authorities to classify them as trafficking. The women were burdened by huge debts, and under close watch. When they wanted a transfer, they were slapped with severe penalties.

Interestingly, he mentioned that at least one of the cases surfaced when a neighbour noticed what was going on and made a report.

Change of Employer for foreign workers with valid claims against their employers

On the separate note, and in answer to a question by TWC2, he mentioned that “about 50%” of foreign workers with valid claims were successful in obtaining new transfer jobs. When pressed for specific numbers, he gave an estimate of 300 successful cases out of about 600 who “wanted a transfer”.

It’s not clear what is meant by “wanted a transfer”, because according the ministry’s policy, it is now an automatic option for anyone with a valid claim. No worker needs to ask for the right to transfer. The Straits Times reported (19 Jan 2017, “MOM: Salary recovery matters are civil claims”) that MOM receives about 4,500 salary claims a year from foreign workers. Thus, it’s not clear why Tan used a denominator of 600 instead of 4,500.

He did say that some workers did not want a transfer; they just wanted to go home. But going by TWC2’s experience with workers with salary claims, the vast majority do want to continue working here. To think that only 600 out of maybe 4,500 (i.e. only 13%) are interested in a transfer is not credible to our ears. And since he said 300 were “successful” that is an even lower rate: about 6 or 7%.


To a question about human trafficking in the fishing industry, Tan mentioned a case from last year when an Indonesian man lodged complaints about abusive treatment he had received from the captain of the fishing trawler. The complaint was voiced when the ship docked at the Jurong Fishery Port. Tan said that MOM eventually saw the case mostly as a salary dispute and helped resolve it as such. As for other abuses, the man wanted to go home, and the case was not pursued further.

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Update, 20 March 2018. Tan Fang Qun provided the following clarifications following the publication of the above article: He writes:

I was quoted that MOM found 8 substantiated cases of trafficking and that three are under prosecution. This implied that there were 8 cases of labour-trafficking case and MOM only prosecuted 3. This is inaccurate. I shared that there were in total 8 substantiated cases of trafficking that were prosecuted — 3 were labour trafficking investigated by MOM and the remainder were sex trafficking cases investigated by the police. In addition, I said that these cases were uncovered since the enactment of the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act in 2015 not in 2017.

The article also did not accurately captured what I shared on the change of employer statistics. In response to a question, I explained that all workers who had valid claims were offered the opportunity to find an alternative employer while their claims were being resolved. Of the workers who wanted to take up the opportunity in the first half of 2017, about half of them managed to find a job. I suggested that one of the reasons why some workers did not take up the opportunity was because they wanted to go home.

On the issue of fishermen, the article suggested that there were substantiated abuses that MOM did not investigate. This was not what I shared. I shared that based on the initial reports, we suspected that it was a trafficking case. However, upon investigations, we found that there were no evidence to suggest that the fishermen were trafficking victims and they had employment issues with the ship master. Therefore we worked with our partners to assist the workers. We also referred the details to the relevant authorities who had jurisdiction over the ship master.




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

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