On 27 August 2014, The Straits Times published an opinion article by John Gee, immediate past president of TWC2, which the paper titled ‘Ensuring better protection for migrant workers’. Here, John has revised the article slightly, elaborating on some points at the same time.

By John Gee

At the end of this year, Singapore seems certain to adopt a law that will provide severe penalties for trafficking people for sexual exploitation when it votes on a private member’s bill to be introduced by Mr Christopher de Souza, member of parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah. The Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill is expected to recognise the need to protect the victims of this form of trafficking — including in those cases where they have broken laws while effectively under the control of those who exploit them.  

The new law will also deal with labour trafficking in general. But questions were raised by some NGOs during consultations early this year about how effectively and comprehensively it would do so. While the need for firm action against labour trafficking is widely recognised, translating this recognition into practical legal measures presents a challenge.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between people who have been trafficked into labour exploitation and migrant workers in the worst conditions of employment. Given that there are a million migrant workers in Singapore, even if only one in 50 faced such conditions, that would be 20,000 people.

If, besides being underpaid, overworked and mistreated, many of these 20,000 claim to be trafficked as well, the authorities would be presented with an additional headache, including legal complications and longer case settlement times. It would certainly not help Singapore’s international image. Why risk opening a can of worms by introducing a law that might encourage hundreds or even thousands of disgruntled workers to allege that they have been trafficked?


Trafficking indicators

One source of confusion may be the “trafficking indicators” used by a number of international institutions and national law enforcement agencies.

Each indicator describes a sign that an immigration official, a police officer or indeed, an NGO worker might recognise in an individual’s experience or behaviour that could suggest he or she is a trafficked person.

Most of the indicators feature in the experiences of many migrant workers. The list of indicators produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, for example, says that people who have been trafficked into labour exploitation may “live in degraded, unsuitable places…”, “have no labour contract”, “work excessively long hours”, “depend on their employer for a number of services, including work, transportation and accommodation” as well as a variety of other conditions familiar to those who hear the complaints of migrant workers.

But it must be understood that indicators such as these are intended to serve as signals that further investigation is needed.  They do not in themselves prove that a person has been trafficked.


Three fundamental characteristics

Three fundamental characteristics qualify trafficking.

Trafficking involves first, the movement of a person from his or her normal place of residence. Second, it requires the use of force, coercion, fraud, deception, abuse of power or exploitation of vulnerability. Third, it is for the purpose of exploitation. If any of these fundamental elements are absent, then trafficking cannot be said to have occurred, even though a worker has been subjected to a range of abuses.

All three of these elements are recognised in the definition of trafficking contained in the most authoritative international anti-trafficking instrument, the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, which entered into force in 2003. This definition is used by Singapore’s Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons as an operational guideline.

But Singapore should not have to appeal to this standard in order to avoid groundless claims.

Instead, it can work to improve the conditions of migrant workers in general, and those in the worst situations in particular, so that conditions described as “trafficking indicators” are eliminated.

Some measures may be quite modest, such as introducing itemised payslips and payment into personal bank accounts for low paid workers. These particular measures would help protect them against exploitation by employers who don’t want to pay workers their salary in full. They would enable  them to see easily how their pay (regular, plus overtime, minus deductions) was calculated and whether the record is accurate, and check the amount paid corresponded to that stated; it would assist in resolving any dispute, whether ‘in house’ or with the intervention of the Ministry of Manpower.

Another measure would be to insist that the terms offered to a worker to persuade him to take a job in Singapore should not only be put into writing, but should be binding upon an employer. And once the worker arrives in Singapore, the employer should be barred from inducing a worker to agree to inferior terms.


Move away from employer control to border control

A more far-reaching approach would be to shift the emphasis in managing labour migration from relying on a work permit system that attaches workers to particular employers to a system that lays greater stress on managing it at the border and through the most advanced documentation technology — technology that was not in existence when the present work permit system was created.

john_gee_article_1950aSingapore’s current work permit system was framed with demographic objectives in view, to control immigration: the government wanted to ensure that migrant workers returned home and did not settle and this was why, through their permits, they were attached to a specific employer who would be made responsible for their repatriation. However, a by-product of the current system was that, by making workers dependent on staying in their employer’s good books out of fear of dismissal and being sent home, employers were given great potential coercive power, which the less scrupulous use to make workers accept employment conditions inferior to those promised when they were recruited, and sometimes terms that violate Singapore’s own laws, such as excessive hours of overtime, underpayment for overtime work, or the payment of kickbacks for contract renewal.

In a revised system, emphasis would be placed upon controlling the total number of migrants within Singapore at any one time, and less on their specific place of work. Passport control and an enhanced work permit, perhaps in the form of a card carrying personal identification data and an employment record, could replace the present over-rigid system. Workers in possession of such work permits could not have them unilaterally cancelled by an employer, but could seek work with another employer during the remaining time period on their work permit. Making it easier for workers to stay on and find new employers when they encounter ill-treatment or non-payment would be one way to disarm their exploiters, give workers a better deal and, incidentally, retain workers with training and some experience in Singapore so that they enhance its productivity rather than another country’s.

It is only realistic to recognise that a radical reform of the current system would require careful discussion and could not take place overnight. However, some of the suggested measures might be adopted more readily. With changes such as those being put into place, Singapore could adopt a robust, comprehensive anti-trafficking law, confident that it would deliver protection to those needing it without being easily misused.