SINGAPORE: Tier 2

The Government of Singapore does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore Singapore remained on Tier 2. These efforts included implementing a new work permit condition by which employers of foreign domestic workers agree not to retain any money belonging to the domestic worker. It also altered the work permit system to allow employers or recruitment agents to open a fee-free bank account on behalf of the employee for electronic salary payment, which resulted in more than 60,000 accounts opened. The government identified more trafficking victims in 2018 compared with 2017 and the government permitted five victims who were material witnesses in court cases against their former employers to return to their home countries, at the government’s expense, pending trial procedures. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government had yet to secure a labor trafficking conviction since the passage of the 2015 law, as authorities frequently prosecuted and convicted cases with indicators of forced labor under other laws with lower penalties. NGOs continued to express concern that authorities did not fully understand the impact of indebtedness and psychological coercion on a trafficking victim, and that as a result some potential victims who went unidentified as such would have been subject to punishment or deportation.

PRIORITIZED RECOMMENDATIONS

Using the 2015 anti-trafficking law, increase investigations and prosecutions, particularly of labor trafficking, including cases involving domestic workers, debt-manipulation, or psychological coercion, and convict and sentence convicted traffickers to penalties proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

• Increase resources for investigative and prosecutorial training on trafficking for Ministry of Manpower (MOM) officials who handle labor violations.

• Strengthen efforts to proactively identify trafficking victims, including by conducting training for front-line law enforcement officials with a focus on screening for psychological coercion among women in prostitution and individuals in debt.

• Provide legal alternatives to the removal of foreign trafficking victims to countries where they may face hardship or retribution.

• Continue to implement reforms to the work permit sponsorship system so it does not provide excessive power to sponsors or employers in granting and maintaining the legal status of migrant workers.

• Take steps to eliminate recruitment fees charged to workers by Singaporean labor recruiters and ensure any recruitment fees are paid by employers.

• Strengthen the legal framework to enhance protection for victims from punishment for unlawful acts the trafficker compelled the victim to commit.

• Develop formal policies to provide all victims the right to robust protective services.

• Strengthen cooperation and dialogue with NGOs for developing and implementing anti-trafficking policies and assisting victims.

PROSECUTION

The government’s anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts decreased during the reporting period. The 2015 Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA) criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment and fines up to 100,000 Singapore dollars (SGD) ($73,480), which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In addition, Article 140 of the Women’s Charter criminalized forced prostitution involving detention or physical force and Article 141 criminalized the movement of women and girls for “trafficking” but did not define this term. Penalties prescribed for these offenses included a maximum of five years’ imprisonment, which were lower than the penalties available under the anti-trafficking law. The government investigated most suspected labor trafficking cases as labor law offenses under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA), or the Employment Act, which carried lower penalties than the anti-trafficking law.

In 2018, authorities investigated 16 trafficking cases, a decrease compared with 34 in 2017. Of these, 10 were cases of suspected sex trafficking, compared with 22 cases in 2017. MOM investigated six suspected labor trafficking cases, a decrease compared with 12 cases in 2017. MOM determined that none of the cases in 2018 violated the PHTA and prosecuted the majority of these cases under the EFMA for failure to pay fixed monthly salaries, collection of kickbacks, and illegal employment. The government prosecuted three alleged sex traffickers under the PHTA in 2018, the same number as in 2017 when three alleged labor traffickers were prosecuted. The government reported the prosecution of four sex trafficking cases and five labor trafficking cases, initiated in an earlier reporting period, were ongoing due to their complexity.

The government had yet to prosecute any cases of domestic servitude or obtain a labor trafficking conviction under the 2015 trafficking law. The government did not convict any traffickers under the PHTA in 2018, compared with one trafficker convicted under the PHTA in 2017. The government reported one individual was convicted under the Women’s Charter and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 16,000 SGD ($11,760). The government also convicted and imprisoned several employers of foreign domestic workers under non-trafficking laws for cases involving physical assault, non-payment of wages, not providing a day off, and/or adequate food. Some NGOs believed authorities set unreasonable standards for what qualified as the crime of trafficking and lacked an understanding of trafficking indicators such as indebtedness, psychological coercion, and deception, which hampered PHTA enforcement.

The government reported police, immigration, and MOM officials were continuously trained on anti-trafficking measures; during 2018, more than 400 such officials received training on the identification of potential trafficking victims. The government continued to partner with and participate in international trainings with foreign governments and to work closely with international counterparts on several cross-border investigations. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in trafficking. However, the government did convict an immigration official in December 2018 for warning three Chinese women about impending law enforcement raids for prostitution-related crimes and for receiving sexual services as bribes from the women in exchange for extending their immigration passes; the court sentenced the official to three years’ imprisonment.

PROTECTION

The government increased protection efforts. Police, labor, and immigration officials had standard operating procedures for identifying victims, and the government had a victim referral process among government officials, civil society organizations, and foreign embassies. The government reported identifying 32 potential trafficking victims (nine sex and 23 labor trafficking victims), an increase compared with 20 potential victims (eight sex trafficking victims and 12 labor trafficking victims) in 2017. All police officers received basic training on victim identification; however, several NGOs reported officials failed to recognize key indicators of trafficking when interviewing potential victims, particularly in cases involving psychological coercion or debt bondage, and among migrant workers. NGOs also voiced concern that police did not consistently screen for trafficking indicators when police raided unlicensed brothels; as a result, the government may have prosecuted or punished unidentified sex trafficking victims for immigration violations or public solicitation. NGOs reported they provided services to several thousand migrant workers who experienced varying degrees of labor law violations or exploitation in 2018. Several of these NGOs believed a significant number of the cases they encountered were of forced labor.

The government guaranteed food, shelter, psycho-social services, and other basic assistance to trafficking victims under the PHTA and used administrative discretion to provide additional support measures, customized according to victims’ needs, including interpreters, medical services, temporary work permits, and resettlement assistance. However, absent a formal policy mandating the provision of these services to all victims, and due to front-line officers’ incomplete understanding of the effect of psychological coercion on a person, some victims likely did not receive all services necessary for rehabilitation.

The government allocated 2.8 million SGD ($2.06 million) in 2018 in its annual budget, a decrease compared with 3.2 million SGD ($2.35 million) in 2017, for anti-trafficking activities, including shelter and protection services. The government fully funded shelters for the cost of caring for trafficking victims. The Ministry of Social and Family Development funded four NGO-run shelters for women, one of which specifically served as a shelter for up to 48 female trafficking victims and exploited foreign domestic workers. MOM funded two shelters, with a total capacity of 68 individuals, for male foreign workers, one of which is designated for use by male trafficking victims. The government provided partial funding and oversight to 22 homes serving vulnerable children. Authorities permitted freedom of movement outside of the shelter for most shelter residents but restricted movement for any residents deemed to be under physical threat. Several other NGOs and two foreign government embassies also provided shelter to trafficking victims and others who had experienced labor exploitation.

The government allocated funding for an NGO to provide victims with trauma recovery and safe resettlement services including counseling and medical care, skill development, legal support, employment, and assistance with resettlement in the victim’s home country. In 2018, the NGO continued to support 11 foreign labor trafficking victims referred by the government in an earlier reporting period and provided trauma recovery services for 106 foreign domestic workers who were victims of abusive labor conditions but not identified by the government as trafficking victims. In 2018, the government permitted five victims who were material witnesses in court cases against their former employers to return to their home country, at the government’s expense, pending trial procedures, compared with four victims in 2017. The government granted seven victims short-term work permits, available for the duration of their legal processes, the same number as in 2017.

In October 2018, the Chief Justice, in collaboration with an NGO, state courts, and legal organizations, launched a toolkit to help children and other vulnerable witnesses understand court proceedings. In March 2018, the High Court stipulated that in criminal cases of abuse of foreign domestic workers, courts should consider compensation for pain and suffering as well as restitution for wages. NGOs reported they offered victims of trafficking pro bono legal assistance to pursue civil court claims for restitution; all victims declined this offer in 2018. The government did not provide long-term alternatives to removal to countries where victims may face hardship or retribution.

PREVENTION

The government increased efforts to prevent trafficking. The interagency task force, co-chaired by the Ministry of Home Affairs and MOM, coordinated anti-trafficking efforts through its “National Approach against Trafficking in Persons, 2016-2026.” The task force held its annual stakeholder consultation with 60 participants from NGOs, business, and academia in July 2018 to review the implementation of the national approach; some NGOs continued to express a desire for more dialogue with the task force. The government continued to budget 80,000 SGD ($58,780) to provide grants to civil society for awareness-raising campaigns; in August 2018, a local songwriter held a concert and launched a song about the importance of addressing trafficking.

Singapore’s Employment Agencies Act (EAA) mandated licensing and regulation of recruitment agents. The EAA rules capped the maximum recruitment fee an employee may pay an agent at one month’s salary for each year of a valid work permit or the period of the employment contract, whichever was shorter, and subject to an overall maximum of two months’ salary. The majority of migrant workers in Singapore paid fees to agents in Singapore as well as to recruitment agents in their home country, which contributed to the workers’ vulnerability to debt bondage. During 2018, MOM prosecuted 10 recruitment agencies for not being licensed, prosecuted two agencies for recruiting foreign domestic workers under the age of 23, and took administrative action against an additional 80 agencies for failing to ensure the minimum age requirement for foreign domestic workers; this is compared with the prosecution of 25 unlicensed agents in 2017.

MOM managed the work permit process for foreign workers. Singaporean employers applied to MOM to sponsor skilled and semi-skilled workers whose employment and legal immigration status was tied to that specific employer. NGOs stated this restriction on job mobility coupled with the ability of employers to terminate a worker’s employment at any time without the need to show cause created a form of “structural coercion” which prevented some foreign migrant workers from resisting and contesting exploitation. Under certain circumstances, MOM permitted foreign workers to transfer their immigration status to a new employer without their previous employer’s consent; however, the majority of such workers were reportedly unable to find new employment. Singapore law did not prescribe a minimum wage. Under the Employment Act, wages were negotiated and outlined in individual contracts of service. Requirements were less detailed for foreign domestic workers and fishing crews employed locally, who were covered under the EFMA, and for whom employers were legally required to provide a document containing employment terms such as monthly salary, number of rest days, and agency fees. In 2018, MOM began to implement a policy stating that if employers reduced a migrant worker’s salary from what was stated on the application for the employee’s work permit, they must notify MOM after both the employer and employee had agreed to the change in writing. An NGO noted this policy did not address the unequal power dynamic between employer and employee given the vulnerability of those who paid recruitment costs to be coerced to sign a new salary agreement through the threat of immediate termination and repatriation.

During the reporting period, MOM prosecuted 22 employers who made false declarations of higher salaries in order to obtain employee work permits; in one example, authorities fined the company 94,500 SGD ($69,430). As of January 1, 2019, MOM implemented a new work permit condition requiring employers of foreign domestic workers to not retain any wages or money belonging to the domestic worker. In 2018, two NGOs and a local bank introduced fee-free bank accounts for all foreign domestic workers and low-wage migrant workers, into which their salaries can be electronically paid. MOM altered its work permit system to allow employers or recruitment agents to open one of these bank accounts on behalf of the employee as part of the recruitment process; in eight months in 2018, more than 60,000 bank accounts were opened for low-wage migrant workers with an additional smaller number opened for foreign domestic workers.

In October 2018, the government made the 2017 “settling in program” mandatory for all foreign migrant workers in the construction industry. Migrant workers must attend the one-day orientation class, entirely delivered by an NGO, within 14 days of arriving in Singapore; one of the five modules covers employment rights and information on how to get help if necessary. The government continued to screen a pre-departure video at overseas testing centers for construction workers to explain foreign workers’ employment rights in Singapore. MOM continued to publicize its phone number and a mobile phone app as well as three NGO-operated 24-hour hotlines for migrant workers who experience problems. MOM conducted ongoing campaigns to inform employers of the consequences for withholding passports or salaries. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.

TRAFFICKING PROFILE

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit foreign victims in Singapore. Some of the 966,000 foreign work permit holders that comprise more than one-quarter of Singapore’s total labor force are vulnerable to trafficking. Most victims migrate willingly for work in construction, domestic service, performing arts, manufacturing, the service industry, or commercial sex. In order to migrate, many workers assume large debts to recruitment agents in their home countries and sometimes in Singapore, making them vulnerable to debt bondage. Traffickers compel victims into sex trafficking or forced labor through threats of forced repatriation without pay, restrictions on movement, physical and sexual abuse, and withholding wages and travel documents, such as passports. Some recruitment agencies illegally engage in contract switching and charge workers fees over the legal limit. Foreign workers have credible fears of losing their work visas and being deported, since employers have the ability to repatriate workers legally at any time during their contracts with minimal notice. Unscrupulous employers exploit the non-transferability of low-skilled work visas to control or manipulate workers. Some employers, including traffickers, rely on repatriation companies to seize, confine, and escort foreign workers to the airport for departure from Singapore, including through the use of assaults, threats, and coercion, to prevent them from complaining about abuses to authorities. Foreign women sometimes arrive in Singapore with the intention of engaging in prostitution, but under the threat of serious harm or other forms of coercion, they become victims of sex trafficking. Some fishing vessel captains engage in forced labor by using physical abuse to force men to perform labor on long-haul boats that transit or dock at Singaporean ports. A small number of Singapore residents facilitate and engage in child sex tourism abroad, including in nearby Batam, Indonesia.

2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Singapore
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