Addressing gender inequality crucial to ending human trafficking

Jaya Deshpande is a volunteer at HOME. She recently worked on the preparation of a shadow report to the United Nations on China’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. Here, she shares her insights.

As a woman growing up in the 21st century, I like to think sexual discrimination is on a decline, and that finally the world is coming to terms with the fact that women are equal to men. Sadly, we all know this is not the situation that we face, and in fact women are still being exploited and trafficked at astounding rates.

The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international human rights convention that came into force in 1981. It defines discrimination against women, and requires signatory countries (like China and Singapore) to take action to stop it. Reports by non-Government organisations like HOME are an important part of monitoring countries’ progress and compliance with their obligations under CEDAW.

In Singapore alone, many women are brought into the country under false pretences every year. A number of them are from China. HOME recently assisted a woman from rural China who paid more than $5000 for a job as a singer in Singapore. She had very limited earning capacity in China and her husband’s salary alone was not enough to pay for their sick daughter’s medical treatment. However, when the woman arrived in Singapore, she was forced to provide sexual services to customers. She faced threats and violence at the hands of her employers. Both her employers and her agents made a lot of money from her suffering.

It is important to note that the term trafficking encompasses not only forced prostitution, but also forced labour, debt bondage and servitude. Whilst the Government has acknowledged the problem and established the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons to address it, our research for the CEDAW report highlighted that tackling the issue is a huge challenge, given women’s specific vulnerabilities. Employment agencies in Singapore and overseas continue to exploit inequalities between men and women in less developed countries. Although men can be victims of trafficking just like women, women in some countries are put at an extra disadvantage in life through their lack of education, access to employment and continual discrimination within the work place. Addressing these vulnerabilities is crucial to reducing the trafficking of women.

Working on this report opened my eyes to the extent of the problem of women being trafficked from China (and across the globe) to countries like Singapore. My involvement encouraged me to become more vigilant about human trafficking. It made me realise that we need to spread knowledge about the variety of forms of trafficking and stop the stigma attached to sex trafficking. Most importantly, we need to continue to work to address the discrimination and lack of opportunity that makes women and girls so vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking.

Support HOME’s anti-human trafficking efforts. Sign our petition for the comprehensive protection of the rights of trafficked persons in Singapore, read case stories and join the discussion here.

Photo by Juliana Tan.

Campaigning for victims’ rights: #StopTraffickingSG

Trafficking in persons is a serious crime and a violation of human rights. Every year men, women and children are deceived or coerced into leaving their homes and moving to Singapore only to end up in jobs and working conditions they did not expect. However, even after discovering that they have been deceived, many of them find it difficult to leave because of huge debts they own to recruiters, or because they face nothing but poverty in their home countries. These men, women and children may also be physically, psychologically, and sexually abused, and have to work long hours with inadequate rest. They may also be verbally abused or threatened by their employers and recruiters.

A few months ago Singaporean MP Mr Christopher De Souza proposed to draft a Private Member’s Bill dedicated to combating human trafficking. HOME was present at public consulations held The aim is to present the Bill in parliament in November 2014. HOME welcomes the new Bill, and hopes it will be a significant step in combating human trafficking in Singapore.

HOME, together with other Singaporean Non-Governmental Organisations AWARE, TWC2, Healthserve and MARUAH has organised the StopTraffickingSG Campaign, which will run from now until the presentation of the Bill in Parliament.

The StopTraffickingSG campaign aims to create more awareness on Human Trafficking issues in Singapore, and to urge the government to adopt a victim-centred approach in the drafting of the Bill on Prevention of Human Trafficking. The campaign organisers feel that without this, the Bill will not be sufficiently effective in combating Human Trafficking.

StopTrafficking SG recommends the following to be considered:

  1. Victims have the right to accommodation, food, counselling services, legal aid, medical treatment, compensation and social support while their case is on-going.
  1. Victims are not prosecuted for being an undocumented immigrant or for working ‘illegally’ or for any illegal immigration infractions inadvertently committed while being trafficked. 
  1. Victims have the right to work and a decent income while their case is on-going.

Victim’s rights need to be taken into consideration to ensure detection and prosecution of traffickers and trafficking-related crimes. If not, many victims will opt to return to their home countries without making a formal complaint to the authorities, rendering the Bill ineffective.

At the moment, trafficked victims are often reluctant to file complaints and claim justice. Investigations and legal proceedings may take several months or even up to two years before being resolved, during which time the victims are obliged to remain in Singapore. It is not guaranteed they will have the option to work during investigations, and many, being the breadwinners of their families, can simply not afford to stay to file a complaint. Sometimes victims are even prosecuted for being undocumented immigrants, or for working illegally, often unknowingly and due to the actions of their traffickers. The victim’s fear for the authorities stops them from seeking help.

Inclusion of victim’s rights will also align Singapore’s laws with international standards. A clear framework to protect victims of trafficking in Singapore strengthens relations with our neighbours, who are the main source countries of victims trafficked through and to Singapore.

Guaranteeing the  victims’ safety, livelihood and sustenance in the Bill will give victims of Human Trafficking the incentive to report, identify and testify against perpetrators. This will aid the effective prosecution of employers and recruiters involved in trafficking persons into Singapore, and in turn assist the destruction of trafficking syndicates as well as bring justice to victims and reduce crimes that threaten the security of Singapore.

Visit the Campaign website, for updates and Human Trafficking Stories: http://stoptraffickingsg.wordpress.com/

Or find StopTraffickingSG on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Stoptraffickingsg

Please sign our Petition for the comprehensive protection of the rights of Trafficked Persons in Singapore. Everyone with a valid address in Singapore is eligible to sign, regardless of nationality.

Read here HOME’s full response to the proposed Bill: Position Paper on the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill,

Want to learn more about what Human Trafficking is? Check out these websites with useful information:

United Nations

www.humantrafficking.org 

Healthcare worker paid just $330 per month to care for Singapore’s sick and infirm

Earlier this month, as part of the National Day Observance Ceremony, NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Patrick Tay announced that the wages of around 5,000 local healthcare support staff would have increased by about 15 per cent by the end of 2014. Such increases are welcomed, but wages in the healthcare support sector remain shockingly low, particularly for migrant workers.

HOME recently assisted a Healthcare Assistant from Myanmar. Thiri* had been working for her employer in Singapore for two years. Her salary was $330 per month. This is just $1.53 per hour.

According to the Ministry of Manpower’s annual wage report for 2012, a healthcare assistant at the 25th percentile earned an average basic monthly salary of $1161. This means that the average wage of the worst paid workers doing the same job was still almost 4 times more the amount Thiri earned. Foreign worker levies for unskilled workers in the services sector are between $420 and $700 a month. Thiri’s employer most likely had to pay more to the government for hiring her than to Thiri herself.

Thiri was employed to work in a home for intellectually disabled people. She had one day off every week and worked shifts, sometimes overnight. Irregular sleep patterns are the norm for health care workers who perform such tasks. She was mainly responsible for general cleaning and cleaning up after patients who soiled themselves. Thiri paid her agent in Myanmar S$2800 for her job. This was eight and a half months’ of her basic pay.

Thiri came to HOME for help when she was dismissed by her employer without proper notice. HOME referred Thiri’s case to the Ministry of Manpower, where Thiri agreed to return home to Myanmar with one month’s compensation in lieu of notice. She was keen to get home.

Singapore’s Government acknowledges that as our population ages, there will be more demand on healthcare services. Migrant workers make up around 75% of the healthcare support workforce, and projections from the Prime Minister’s Office suggest that 6,000 new positions for migrant workers will be created by 2030.

Singapore prides itself on the quality of its healthcare system, but it is crucial that the workers who support this system are adequately compensated for their efforts. It is difficult for anyone to argue that a basic wage of $330 per month is adequate compensation for taking care of Singapore’s sick and infirm.

* Not her real name

AGC must go further to address abuse case delays

HOME welcomes statements by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) that it has formed a working group to focus on expediting the prosecution of employers who abuse their domestic workers and to look into compensation options for victims (“AGC studying ways to speed up cases involving abused foreign workers”, The Straits Times, 4 August 2014). However, more must be done to assist abused foreign domestic workers in Singapore. 

The slow pace of abuse investigations in Singapore takes its toll on victims of abuse. As The Sunday Times reported on 3 August 2014, HOME’s shelter hosts abused domestic workers who must remain in Singapore to assist investigations. Many are stuck here for years. This long wait has a heavy impact; emotionally, physically and financially. Whilst speeding up the investigations would help these women get home sooner, this is not enough.

As AGC recognises, abused foreign domestic workers in Singapore deserve compensation for their ordeals. However, the compensation framework needs to be streamlined and standardized. Further, compensation assessments must reflect the trauma and abuse suffered by a worker, as well as upkeep and opportunity costs. Most abused domestic workers rely on organizations like HOME to provide them with food and shelter, despite employers’ obligations to meet these needs under the Employment of Foreign Manpower framework. In addition, every day that a worker waits in our shelter is one in which she is not earning any salary.

Through no fault of their own, abused workers are left with no way to support the families who are waiting for them back home. Thus, it is crucial that victims of abuse are given a decent opportunity to work while they wait. Currently, abused domestic workers are unable to work in other sectors, but many tell us that they are afraid to work in another household after the trauma they suffered. Allowing these women to work elsewhere (for example in the service industry) would allow them to productively use their waiting time; alleviating a heavy financial and emotional burden.

HOME is heartened by AGC’s commitment to improving the plight of abused domestic workers in Singapore. We hope that the working group recognizes not only the need for abuse cases to be concluded more quickly, but also for domestic workers to be given fair compensation for their ordeals and a fair opportunity to work while they wait.

Finding the silver lining

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“Until now I stay at HOME. I’ve waited 15 months for my case. It has not been completed. Sometimes I think this is all unfair. Why do I have to wait for this? I need to earn money and help my parents.”

Idiyah* came to Singapore to earn money to support her family of six in Bandung, Indonesia. She knew about the nature of the job, and was prepared to work hard, but nothing could prepare her for the physical abuse, constant surveillance and complete isolation that awaited her. Idiyah was not allowed a hand phone, to call back home or even talk to the neighbours. The only time Idiyah, who did not have a day off, left the house, was when she was sent to her employer’s relative’s place for additional household chores – illegal deployment, which is not allowed in Singapore. Apart from that, Idiyah was trapped in her employers’ three-storey bungalow.

Things got worse when her employer suspected Idiyah of stealing one of her towels, and hit her on the head with a car key and slapped her face. Distraught, Idiyah requested to be sent back to her agent.

“But they said I need to pay them $6000 if I want to return to my agency”.

Idiyah was still paying off agency fees, and received only $10 allowance per month. She was trapped. The next time her employer hit her with a broom. One Sunday morning Idiyah ran away to seek help at the Ministry of Manpower. A friendly cab driver brought her to HOME at Orchard Road instead.

“When I called home and told my mother everything she cried. She asked me to come home. I want to go home too but everybody said I have to wait for the case.”

Idiyah stayed at the HOME shelter while her cases for illegal deployment and abuse were investigated. Idiyah expected it to be a speedy procedure but ended up waiting fifteen months for the investigations to be completed. During this time her father suffered a stroke, but Idiyah had to remain in Singapore while the investigations continued.

Despite the difficulties, Idiyah found solace in the activities at HOME’s shelter; she learnt sewing, and volunteered at HOME’s Waterloo Street office, assisting other migrant workers. Hers was always a smiling in the office and she found joy in helping others in a position similar to hers.

“During my stay at HOME I learnt a lot of things. I understand how to respect other people. It is a wonderful feeling. Sometimes I felt sad when I miss my family but I always try to smile and look happy. I try to be stronger.”

In the end, Idiyah decided not to press charges against her employers for the abuse, as she did not want to prolong the wait. Idiyah has returned to Indonesia but wants to come back to Singapore to work. Despite her experience, she has grown a lot, and during her stay at HOME improved her English, gained confidence, and made friends. She even learned some Tagalog from her Filipino friends! Idiyah believes she could now deal with whatever challenges may come her way.

Idiyah made the most of her time at HOME’s shelter, but the frustration and anxiety that she experienced during the fifteen-month wait for her case to be resolved were hard to endure. Underneath her smile, she was in pain.  Singapore does not have a comprehensive victim protection system to ensure that workers like Idiyah have adequate social support whilst awaiting the outcome of their case. Apart from this, measures to speed up the processing of investigations need to be implemented to ensure that victims are not themselves ‘punished’ again with long waits during which they are unable to provide for themselves and their families.

*Not her real name

Starved into Submission

Editor’s note: After the story was published, the Ministry of Manpower wrote to us that the cases in this article were being investigated. They also informed us that they would investigate complaints from FDWs about inadequate food.

You’re probably sitting down to read this article. At your desk or on the sofa. Somewhere comfortable. For domestic worker Amina, sitting down is now painful. She is so thin that it hurts her pelvis. She weighs a mere 29kgs, 20kg less than when she started work in Singapore. After Amina finally found the courage to run away from her employer, she was hospitalized for 3 days due to severe malnutrition. Amina is now recovering and has started gaining weight.

Amina’s case may sound extreme, but in the last year HOME has seen more cases of domestic workers suffering health problems caused by poor nutrition. In another case seen by HOME, domestic worker Shanti lost 7 kgs in 6 weeks because she was given only one small bowl of rice and one small bowl of vegetable curry per week. She prepared large meals of meat and vegetables for her employers, but was not allowed to touch their left-overs or even food they had thrown away. She was served her food on the floor. As she did not get a day off and received no salary as she was still paying off her agency fee, Shanti had no access to other food. She worked long days on an empty stomach.

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I took this photograph of my employer’s dinner one night.

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This is my food… it had to last me a whole week.

Government guidelines state that employers must provide ‘adequate food’ for their live-in domestic workers. But they do not define what amount, or type of food is adequate. The extent to which employers are taken to task for not providing adequate food is also not known. HOME has spoken to several domestic workers who were never given meat or vegetables, and had to live for long periods on just bread, rice or instant noodles. Many said they regularly went to bed hungry.

Failure to provide adequate food often coincides with abuse and denial of other basic living requirements. In Shanti’s case this included physical abuse by her employer. Amina was given limited access to washing facilities, was not allowed to brush her teeth and was allowed only two showers per week. To save money she was woken in the night to use the condominium showers rather than a bathroom in her employer’s apartment. Her employer, and sometimes even her employer’s husband, watched her shower, in order to make sure she did not use hot water.

Foreign domestic workers are legally required to live with their employers, which makes it hard to regulate their living circumstances. In cases where the employee works seven days a week, and has no opportunity to complement her diet elsewhere, she is left to the mercy of her employer.  Clearer guidelines and regulations on what comprises ‘adequate food’ for domestic workers would help to ensure that cases such as Amina’s and Shanti’s do not occur in future.

Names in this story have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy

She slaved away for nothing

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Maria Luisa, a domestic worker from the Philippines, stayed sixteen months at our HOME shelter waiting for MOM to help her recover two years’ worth of salary (she says it was about S$9,000) owed to her by her employer. As her employer has declared bankruptcy, she has been informed that she will be sent home to the Philippines – with nothing.

A family friend from Maria Luisa’s hometown in the Philippines was married to a Singaporean, and ran a restaurant in Katong. She offered to hire Maria Luisa and bring her – and her son – over to Singapore. Maria Luisa trusted her friend, and arrived in Singapore in early 2009. For almost four years, she worked in the couple’s restaurant – delivering food, preparing sauces, and serving tables – for fifteen-hour shifts at time, seven days a week, for $400 a month.

As her employers were friends of her family, Maria Luisa placed her trust in them and did not know that she should not be working in the restaurant. Her son remained in the Philippines; the promise to bring him over unfulfilled. Maria Luisa has not seen her son since she arrived in Singapore more than five years ago.

Maria Luisa’s employers treated her well at first, buying her jewellery for her birthday and new clothes for Chinese New Year. But they stopped paying her salary sometime in 2011. She was told that there was no money to pay her. But Maria Luisa saw the restaurant still running, and other bills being paid. She repeatedly asked for money to send to her school-going son, but was always rebuffed – even on the happy occasion of her son’s graduation from elementary school.

She couldn’t sleep, and often shed tears worrying that she had nothing to send back to her sister who was caring for her son and their parents. But she continued to work, hoping and trusting that her employers would be touched by her dedication.

“They kept telling me that they would pay me, so I just waited and waited. Sometimes I was too scared to ask them.

In March 2013, two years after her salary payments stopped, Maria Luisa finally filed a complaint with MOM. She was referred to the HOME shelter, and stayed there on a special pass during the on-going investigations.

After sixteen long months, the long-awaited call from MOM came. Maria Luisa’s employer had declared bankruptcy. The MOM officer said it would be too difficult to demand the owed salary from them. MOM was closing the case, and sending her home within 10 days. Maria Luisa broke down.

“How can I go home without any money, after waiting for three long years? I cannot accept it.”

Maria Luisa’s employer has pleaded guilty to several charges of failing to pay her and for illegal deployment, and has been jailed for six weeks as a result. But this is cold comfort for Maria Luisa, who now returns to the Philippines with nothing to show for three years of lost time. While she is happy to finally see her son, it is a bittersweet reunion because of her inability to contribute to her family’s finances.

“I’m not angry with them. But I can’t help but cry every night because I have nothing to bring back to my family.”

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Maria Luisa’s story was featured on the front page of The New Paper on Wednesday 23 July 2014.

The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) is an anti-human trafficking organisation advocating empowerment and justice for all migrant workers in Singapore