By Nissa Mai

The flight from Singapore to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, wasn’t long — just under two hours — but for Margarette, the journey represented a whole new beginning, a fresh take on life. After years of domestic labor, she was finally going to begin her career in the hospitality line.

Margarette, a Filipina national, had spent the last six years working in Singapore. She dreamed of furthering her education, so she carefully saved every penny she earned, putting the money towards a diploma-to-degree program in Travel, Tourism, and Hotel Management at a school in Singapore. After graduation, she sought out a Singapore-licensed employment agency. The office was on Orchard Road, amid exclusive restaurants, world-famous designer boutiques, and swanky hotels; its location practically exuded trustworthiness and respectability. The agent, a Mr Tan, put her in touch with Lila, Mr Tan’s “long-time friend” from the the Philippines who was now a Singapore permanent resident. Lila offered what seemed like the perfect starting position — Margarette would be stationed at a travel agency in Cambodia, where she would have her own office, telephone, and computer.

When Margarette’s plane touched down, a young man was waiting for her at Phnom Penh’s airport. “Hello!” she introduced herself. “I will be the one to work in Koino Air Travel.”

The man seemed bewildered. “Koino Air?” He scratched his head. “There is no Koino Air here.”

Describing the weeks prior to her departure, Margarette says that she was initially offered a job selling herbal supplement products, but she turned it down. “I want to travel or work in the hotel [industry], do something with my course,” she told Lila. Lila explained that her husband, a Singaporean, was actually opening a travel agency in Phnom Penh; Margarette could start as soon as her current contract expired. Looking back, she says, “I really don’t understand why Lila wanted to hire me for whatever kind of offer. I thought that maybe she really believed in my potential or something like that.”

So she accepted the job offer.

When Margarette arrived in Cambodia, she was horrified by her living quarters — a tiny room which she would share with two men and another woman. There was only one bed, though one of the men had brought in a fold-out cot. “I did not expect I’d be sleeping on [a] bed with two people, especially a male! I can’t accept sleeping with a guy in the same bed; I was so scared,” Margarette recalled. Even worse, she discovered that she had been tricked; the offer with the travel agency was a scam. “I realized the reason [Lila] sent me is because she wants me to sell the herbal product.”

Margarette was devastated. Throughout her six years working in her previous job, she tells me, she saved in order to invest in her education. “[I] work six years, every cent I save up because I really want to have better future.” After all her hard work, the situation in Phenom Penh was unacceptable. “This is not a future!” she exclaims.

When Lila and her husband flew in from Singapore, they threatened Margarette. “No sales means no salary!” they told her. “But I don’t have tools,” Margarette responded. “No computer, no telephone, what am I going to sell?” Desperate to make some money, she tried to make sales despite her lack of resources, “I made brochures, flyers, business card with my own pocket, and I go out on my off days to give my flyers.” She needed to be able to afford to pay  for food, water, and electricity.

She was constantly afraid too, as she didn’t have a work visa. Would she be sent to prison next?

The United Nations Palermo Protocol (Nov 2000), otherwise known as the “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons,” defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means

  • of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion,
  • of abduction,
  • of fraud,
  • of deception,
  • of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability

… for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation is defined to include “forced labour or services”.

[emphases by TWC2]

Based on Margarette’s story, her case appears to check several measures in this international definition.

As for how Lila operated her business, Margarette explains that “it’s not possible [to reach the quota]. She send [her workers] to places and keep charging for ticket and product even though in contract was written [Lila would] pay. So we get very small amount of money. This is her strategy to not pay for employee!”

Margarette wasn’t the only one. There were others working for Lila in a similar situation, sent to other countries on tourist visas. The employee tasked with selling the product in Singapore “doesn’t even have a contract or working visa. She [was] so scared!”

Fortunately, after spending two months in Cambodia, she was able to contact her previous employer, who “book me a ticket to Singapore. When I come back, she didn’t even recognize me because I am so thin!” Margarette then went to confront Lila. “I say I want to claim my salary. But [Lila] said that the product charged to you, so I was in debt to her! She say I have to pay them because I left the company.”

A TWC2 volunteer has helped Margarette file a case with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), but after interviewing here, the ministry was unable to find any breaches of the Employment Act or Employment Agencies Act. The ministry did find, however that there might have been “employment issues which may have occurred in Cambodia”, and said they’d refer these to the Cambodian embassy.

MOM concluded that this was not a trafficking case.  It is not clear whether it was because they discounted Margarette’s tale of deception at the point of recruitment or whether they accepted that deception had occurred but did not consider it to constitute a sufficient indicator of trafficking. This is disappointing. Surely Singapore would not like such behaviour to thrive and to be painted as a source country for trafficking victims.

Margarette also tells us that the agent was “appalled” to learn what happened after he made the introduction to Lila. He refunded Margarette the entire fee.

Despite the traumatic experience, Margarette thinks she’s lucky. “I’m safe; it could have been a lot worse.” But she worries others may fall into the same trap, others who may not be able to escape. Although Singaporean citizens and permanent residents are responsible for her ordeal, she isn’t allowed to stay on in Singapore to seek justice. Instead, she’ll be sent back to the Philippines at the end of August 2014, with no progress on her case. Her Singapore-based recruiters, on the other hand, are free to continue living here and deceiving unsuspecting victims.

Singapore has not signed the Palermo protocol.