Empowering foreign workers to report Human Trafficking Crimes

#StoptraffickingSG Press Conference

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Yesterday’s press conference presenting #StoptraffickingSG’s reaction to the proposed Bill, and the discussion afterwards, provided an unique opportunity to hear the combined voice of six influential Singapore’s NGO’s. What was their message? That without a clearly defined victim-centred approach, this Bill that aims to combat human trafficking, will not be effective.

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HOME’s Jolovan Wham kicked off, by giving an in-depth explanation of the joint campaign’s point of view on the proposed Bill. He stressed that one of the most important rights that victims of Human Trafficking need, is the right to work during on-going investigations. In many cases seen at HOME, foreign workers ask ‘can I work if I file the complaint?’ When the answer is negative, many decide not to proceed with the case. They simply cannot afford to, as they have a family to feed. In HOME’s experience, investigations can take up to two years, or more, to be concluded. In that time the foreign worker is often completely dependent on charity, being fed, housed and cared for by NGO’s that receive no government funding.

Another important right that foreign workers need is the one not to be prosecuted themselves. Traffickers are very much aware of the fear that foreign workers have for the authorities, and use this effectively to deter them from filing complaints. According to Jolovan Wham, employers will threaten: ‘If you file a case against me, you will go to jail yourself, or get the cane.’

These examples aim to show that the Bill should not be just about the prosecution of perpetrators, but about incentivising victims to come forward.

This point was further stressed by Vanessa Ho from Project X, who not long ago witnessed a raid on suspected traffickers in the sex industry. A large group of police officers, armed with batons and tasers, surrounded the area and rounded up suspects in a loud and violent way. Raid likes these are known to cause secondary trauma to victims. As Vanessa put it ‘it is important to empower foreign workers to report crimes, rather than to break down doors to find them.’

Maruah president Braema Mathi added that the Bill makes a mention of the word decency, and asked whether raids like this, which are violent and often rather public, could be considered decent when it comes to safeguarding the victims? She was relieved to see that not only sex work, but also forced labour has been mentioned in the proposed Bill, but stressed that many points in the Bill need more clarification, before there can be any way of knowing whether this Bill will be good enough.

Campaign leader Peck Hoon Tam explained how the Bill seems biased towards victims of sex labour, just like many people think of ‘the perfect victim’ of human trafficking, a girl deceived and forced into prostitution. Reality is much more complicated, and in Singapore often concerns forced labour or domestic workers. It is important that the Bill reflects reality.

Outreach to foreign workers, by means of NGO’s and hotlines to make foreign workers aware of their rights, is an effective way to get victims of trafficking to step forward, especially if the government provides them with shelter, the right to work and protection from prosecution.

Vivienne Wee from AWARE spoke about the issue of deception, and the root cause of trafficking in persons: the profit that the trafficker makes. It needs to be clear that profit is not always a direct payment, but can also refer to other ways in which the trafficker profits. These can be illegitimate salary deductions, non-payment of salary or many others.

Another important issue that was stressed by many of the NGO’s is that while the Bill focuses solely on Singapore, human trafficking is in fact an international problem. John Gee from TWC2 explained that human trafficking is an on-going process, and usually not committed by one person but by a chain of people that crosses borders. The end user is complicit as well as the recruiter.

International aspects also need to be addressed when victims of human trafficking go back to their home countries. Someone may wait for them on their return, their families may be threatened, and victims that are in debt are often re-trafficked.

All NGO’s present agreed that key terms in the proposed Bill, like ‘forced labour’ and ‘deception’, are not defined clearly, and that it must be made clear which indicators will be used in identifying potential victims of trafficking.

HOME hopes that the debate in Parliament will further clarify all issues mentioned, and that the representatives of the press present at the meeting will help raise questions in Singapore society.

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