Former president of Transient Workers Count Too, John Gee, spoke at the NUS Human Trafficking Conference on 10 January 2014. Others on the panel included Kandhavel Periyasamy (Joint Ops Director, Ministry of Manpower), Jolovan Wham (Workfair Singapore) and two students from Singapore Management University who recently did a project relating to trafficking.

John’s paper was titled: 

Migrants or Trafficked People – What’s the Problem?

Good Afternoon. I’m a volunteer with Transient Workers Count Too and in introducing myself, I think it is relevant to state that we came to the issue of trafficking through the work we did with migrant workers on a regular basis. It was not that we started out as an organisation with any clear perspectives on trafficking; it surfaced as an issue related to our ongoing work, when we encountered people who we thought could have been trafficked. This may explain our particular perspective on the issue.

Among the key tools used to deal with trafficking internationally are sets of trafficking indicators. They have their value and are probably indispensable in some form or another, but their use is attended by certain problems. There is not one agreed set of indicators, for example, though, in my view, this could be accomplished and is now only a matter of time.

A more serious objection is that there may be a temptation, on occasion, to substitute the use of indicators for actual case analysis: I think that, when people ask questions such as, “How many trafficking indicators need to be present to show that a person has been trafficked?”, for example, it suggests that they are falling into this trap. Trafficking indicators may best be viewed as a kind of prompt: when recognised, they should tell the observer that there is a very good case for digging deeper. The next steps should include ensuring the personal security of the person involved and conducting an in-depth interview and investigations to gain a fairly comprehensive picture of that person’s experiences. Only then can a definite determination be made that the person has or has not been trafficked.

johngee_trafficking_shout1Even then, the decision is not always an easy one to reach, particularly when it concerns labour trafficking. The difficulty is this: to go back to those lists of trafficking indicators, we find that many apply to migrant workers in general, and the process of evaluation that their use prompts tends to confirm that there is a broad overlap between the conditions faced by trafficked people and those experienced by low-paid migrant workers in general.

The examples are many.

As a rule, prospective migrant workers are misled by recruiters about the terms of their employment once they go abroad: the great majority are promised more favourable conditions than they will actually attain; they are told that they will face lighter workloads, shorter hours and better pay than they do, in fact, receive. This is such a common experience that it is only those few cases in which a worker is told something approximating to the truth that are surprising to anyone who researches this issue.

johngee_trafficking_shout2The great majority of migrant workers take on placement costs that lock them into a commitment to go ahead with migrating and place them at a grave disadvantage to their employers. With placement debts ranging from a minimum of six months’ earnings to a maximum of over a year’s earnings, often underwritten by their families, these workers are not free to opt out of the process of placement if they find that their job expectations are disappointed, nor do they feel able to protest at their treatment, however justified they may believe it would be.

Some people would refer to this as a form of debt bondage, though I would not go that far: typically, debt bondage involves not protracted debt repayment, but rather, a level of indebtedness that can never be paid off while the person concerned is capable of labour. It condemns its victims to a working lifetime of servitude. Nevertheless, however this debt obligation is interpreted, its coercive character cannot be in doubt.

It is common practice for employment agencies and employers of low-paid migrant workers to take control of their passports, despite the legal prohibition of that action. This is a means of exercising control over a workers’ freedom of movement and is also a frequently cited trafficking indicator.

johngee_trafficking_shout3Another common practice, though less general, is the employment of repatriation agents to ensure that workers go back to their countries of origin. When a worker wishes to go home, such agents may play a fairly benign role, but all too often, NGOs encounter them assisting employers to return workers home forcibly in order to evade their responsibility to pay the workers their due salaries or to support them when they are ill or suffer an injury. The confinement and violence, actual or implicitly threatened, are coercive practices consistent with trafficking.

Then there is the specific position of domestic workers, many of whom, in addition to the conditions I’ve mentioned, are denied a regular day off. It is true that a mandatory day off policy has been introduced, but the provision allowing for employer and employee to reach an agreement on the worker giving up her days off in return for payment can all too easily be used by determined ‘no day off’ employers to compel workers to accept working seven days a week throughout their placement period. This gives those employers a degree of control over their workers that is very excessive and may even exceed that which most trafficked people face at the hands of those who exploit them.

If trafficking may be briefly defined as the movement of people from their home territory to another through coercion or deception for the purposes of exploitation, the question of what constitutes exploitative employment is very relevant.

It is not such a simple issue: there are certainly jobs that locals do in which they feel exploited, for example. What they mean is a degree of underpayment in relation to work performed that may be readily recognised as extraordinary. What degree of underpayment should be considered to be exploitation in judging whether trafficking is taking place may not be easy to establish with any great precision.

johngee_nus_seiminar_0970aSo here’s a problem: the employers of migrant workers only take them on because they are unable to find fellow nationals to do certain jobs at the salaries they are ready to offer. Migrant workers themselves know this, and expect it. They hardly ever complain about not being paid at rates comparable to locals; when they protest, it is normally not because they have been paid substantially less, but because they have not even been paid the money they were due. I would say that they are indeed exploited as a group worldwide, but NGOs and those studying migrant workers tend not to say this. We usually reserve the use of the term “exploitation” for the most extreme circumstances, particularly where the bargain struck between employer and employee on terms of work, however lopsided to begin with, has been broken to the worker’s disadvantage by the employer.

I should add that, in the context of Singapore and many other destination countries of migrants, this issue is a very sensitive one, given the large numbers of migrant workers employed here in precarious and disadvantaged situations. Formulating a coherent approach to labour trafficking has been made very difficult by concerns, at the governmental level, that the issue has the potential to get out of hand: I believe that there’s a fear that, if legislation is not framed with extreme care, a large proportion of those cases identified as being labour issues could instead be identified as involving trafficking, with implications for governmental responsibility and for the country’s international reputation.

So these problems exist, but we are dealing with issues that impinge on the lives of many human beings, and cannot allow ourselves the luxury of endless debate prior to taking action. This is particularly the case for NGOs and for those in the government sector who come face to face with workers who seek help every day. Speaking as someone from an NGO background, I would say that we try to do our best with the tools that we have to hand, although as an NGO that is committed to advocacy, we also argue, at the same time, that better tools should be made available.

As an NGO, we confront the problem of accurately determining whether a person has been trafficked, but the practical responses we need to make are generally fairly evident when it comes to cases that have features of labour trafficking. We may experience difficulties in determining whether a person has been subjected to trafficking for labour exploitation, but I don’t think that we fall down in providing support to the individuals concerned: we take up the issues they raise with us, listen to them and give advice and we look to their need for security of presence in Singapore.

Perhaps there is scope for more dedicated counselling to assist trafficked people to retake control of their own future and restore their self confidence, and this might be where a failure to recognise that labour trafficking has occurred might still pose a problem.

johngee_trafficking_shout4My point in raising these issues is not to put up objections to the value of promoting recognition of and response to labour trafficking, but to assert the need for flexible and imaginative responses. We should not need to reach a conclusion that a person has been subjected to trafficking in order to be able to recognise a need for protection, for example: this should quickly become evident from an in-depth interview. What response should be given, at that point, other than to do our best to see that the necessary protection is given? Among the means we have of responding to the problems migrant workers face, there exists a range of options that can be called upon and used effectively regardless of whether a worker is trafficked or not.

There is a second point in this. Given the big overlap in common migrant worker experiences and those of people trafficked into labour exploitation, the job of identifying trafficking cases and responding to them appropriately could be made simpler if a strategy of raising the status and extending the protection of migrant workers in general was followed. This ought to leave labour trafficking cases standing out more distinctly from other cases involving labour exploitation.

johngee_trafficking_shout5Such a strategy would involve a concentrated effort to narrow distinctions between migrant workers and local workers. Instead of asking what rights and protections migrant workers should be allowed, the presumption should be that they ought to be entitled to all the rights and protections available to citizens unless there are specific, cogent reasons for them not to have them – for example, most countries do not allow non-nationals to stand for election or vote in their national elections. This would mean, in Singapore’s case, ending the system by which workers are attached to specific employers throughout their time here, removing the right of employers to fire and repatriate workers at will, and allowing a great degree of job mobility, subject only to the kind of contractual obligations that citizens might face. Demographic concerns  can be dealt with through border controls and documentation. This strategy should involve bringing migrant workers into Singaporean trade unions on the basis of the unions genuinely trying to represent them, to promote their interests and considering themselves as being unions of workers in Singapore rather than of Singaporean workers. It should include making migrant workers welcome on a long term basis and seeing that they benefit from salary increments that take account of experience and inflation, and rejecting the ‘use and dispose’ rapid turnover model to which some employers seem to be addicted.


If this is done, we should see a wedge driven into that big grey area where the conditions of migrant workers overlap with those of trafficked people. On one side, we should see the consolidation of a big group of migrant workers who regard themselves as committed to working in Singapore for the medium or long term, who are broadly satisfied that they are treated justly and who can be optimistic about the benefits to be gained from their time here. They will not live in fear or insecurity. On the other side will be a much smaller group of workers, more visible than ever before, who might still include some exploited workers who were not trafficked, but would also include all those who were trafficked. Thus made easier to identify, they can be provided more readily with the opportunities and support needed to break out of their exploitative conditions, and those who exploit them at each stage of trafficking may also be more easily identified and penalised.

I hope that Singapore will put in place an effective anti-trafficking law within the next couple of years, but I would suggest that such a strategy as I have indicated, requiring a multi-tiered, cross agency effort, should complement it in order to wipe out trafficking into labour exploitation.