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Singapore (Tier 1)

The Government of Singapore fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. The government continued to demonstrate serious and sustained efforts during the reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Singapore remained on Tier 1. These efforts included convicting two sex traffickers; conducting awareness campaigns; increasing checks on newly arriving migrant workers; and training law enforcement, immigration, and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) officials on victim identification, legislation enforcement, and trafficking indicators. Although the government meets the minimum standards, the government did not initiate any prosecutions for the second consecutive year under the trafficking law. The government investigated fewer trafficking crimes and did not identify any potential labor trafficking victims. While the government mandated new policies to detect the abuse of foreign domestic workers, it did not report identifying more trafficking victims or referring trafficking cases to law enforcement as a result. The government did not report providing services to any of the 26 potential victims. Some NGOs continued to express concern that authorities may penalize or deport some unidentified victims due to their lack of understanding of the impact indebtedness and psychological coercion have on a trafficking victim. The government did not take steps to eliminate all recruitment fees charged to workers by Singaporean labor recruiters and ensure any recruitment fees were paid by employers.

  • Using the 2014 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 MOM officials who handle labor violations.
  • Increase efforts to proactively identify trafficking victims, particularly among vulnerable populations, including individuals in commercial sex and People’s Republic of China (PRC) nationals employed at PRC-affiliated company worksites.
  • Conduct training for front-line law enforcement officials with a focus on screening for psychological coercion among individuals in commercial sex and individuals in debt.
  • 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 all recruitment fees charged to workers by Singaporean labor recruiters and ensure any recruitment fees are paid by employers.
  • Train judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials on the application of trafficking legislation, elements of trafficking, investigative techniques, and evidence collection specific to trafficking cases.
  • Strengthen the legal framework to enhance protection for victims from punishment for unlawful acts traffickers compel them to commit.
  • Refer all identified victims to protection services, including PRC national overseas workers, and develop formal policies to provide all victims the right to robust protective services.
  • Continue to strengthen cooperation and dialogue with NGOs for developing and implementing anti-trafficking policies and assisting victims.

The government maintained law enforcement efforts during the reporting period, even though investigations and prosecutions under the trafficking law decreased. The 2014 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) ($73,960), which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping. 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 seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 100,000 SGD ($73,960). 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 2021, authorities investigated 11 sex trafficking cases, a decrease compared with 12 cases in 2020. MOM did not investigate any labor trafficking cases, compared with seven cases in 2020. MOM determined none of the suspected sex trafficking cases in 2021 violated the PHTA and proceeded with charges under either the Women’s Charter or the Penal Code. The government reported pandemic-related restrictions, including border closures, led to fewer trafficking investigations but did not affect the government’s ability to prosecute trafficking crimes. For the second consecutive year, authorities did not initiate any prosecutions under the PHTA. Authorities continued one labor trafficking prosecution initiated in an earlier reporting period. Courts convicted one trafficker under the PHTA and one trafficker under the Penal Code, compared with one trafficker convicted under the PHTA in 2020. In June 2021, courts sentenced the convicted sex trafficker under the PHTA to 35 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 1,000 SGD ($740), following a case investigation initiated in 2018 involving a child victim. In December 2021, courts sentenced the other sex trafficker under the Penal Code to 15 months’ imprisonment for commercial sex with a child. In August 2021, courts amended a 2020 conviction under the PHTA of one trafficker to attempted trafficking and upheld the three non-PHTA charges against the trafficker, which reduced the sentence from 30 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 SGD ($2,220) to 19 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 2,500 SGD ($1,850) due to insufficient evidence to prove all required elements of the PHTA. In September 2021, courts concluded a 2016 labor trafficking case involving two defendants; courts acquitted one defendant and withdrew charges from the other due to insufficient evidence. Authorities reported investigating and prosecuting potential trafficking crimes under non-trafficking statutes due to difficulties proving elements of trafficking required by the PHTA beyond a reasonable doubt. While the government had yet to prosecute or convict any cases of domestic servitude under the PHTA, courts convicted and imprisoned several employers of foreign domestic workers under non-trafficking laws for cases involving abuse, physical assault, and/or sexual assault. In one case, courts convicted and sentenced an employer for the starvation, torture, and culpable homicide of a foreign domestic worker to 30 years’ imprisonment, the longest sentencing in Singapore’s history for the abuse of a foreign domestic worker. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes.

Some NGOs continued to believe authorities set unreasonably high standards for crimes to qualify as trafficking and lacked an understanding of trafficking indicators such as indebtedness, psychological coercion, and deception, which continued to hamper proper victim identification. The government continued to research and increase awareness on the issue of psychological coercion. The government trained police, immigration, and MOM officials on victim identification, legislation enforcement, and trafficking indicators. Authorities cooperated with foreign governments on ongoing international trafficking cases. The government transitioned some court cases to an internet-based video software program to avoid court delays due to pandemic-related restrictions.

The government decreased protection efforts. The government identified 26 potential trafficking victims, all sex trafficking victims, compared with 23 potential victims (16 sex trafficking victims and seven labor trafficking victims) in 2020. Police, labor, and immigration officials had standard operating procedures for identifying victims, and other government officials, civil society organizations, and foreign embassies could refer potential victims to MOM and the Singapore Police Force. Several NGOs continued to report government 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 voiced concern police did not consistently screen for trafficking indicators during raids on unlicensed commercial sex establishments. In July 2021, authorities raided 27 karaoke bars operating illegally under pandemic restrictions and arrested and charged 29 women with crimes under the Women’s Charter, the Immigration Act, and the EFMA and deported 10 of them; the government reported screening the women for trafficking indicators but did not identify any victims. An NGO reported that two cases they encountered exhibited possible trafficking indicators and that authorities may have penalized or deported numerous unidentified labor trafficking victims. The government reported screening PRC nationals for trafficking indicators in the onboarding centers upon arrival in Singapore and conducting labor inspections at worksites of PRC-affiliated companies.

The government did not report providing assistance to any of the 26 potential trafficking victims, compared with providing assistance to 24 potential trafficking victims, including shelter services for 16, in 2020. The government continued to provide assistance, including shelter, to seven trafficking victims from previous years. The government, in partnership with NGOs, could provide food, temporary shelter, counseling, and other protective services to trafficking victims; as outlined in section 19 of PHTA. Potential trafficking victims could receive assistance before authorities established an investigation as a trafficking case. These services were not contingent on a victim’s assistance in the investigations but are assessed by the Director-General of Social Welfare whether they are considered practicable and necessary in the circumstances of the case; the government reported that so far no identified potential trafficking victim has been refused services. The government funded four shelters with a total capacity of 234 for female victims of crime, including trafficking, and their children. The government offered shelter services to all 26 potential trafficking victims; however, the government reported none of the potential victims used shelter services, as they stayed at other accommodations. The pandemic temporarily reduced the total capacity until December 2021; the Ministry of Social and Family Development opened an additional temporary shelter to ensure sufficient capacity. MOM funded two additional shelters, with a total capacity of 68 individuals, for male foreign workers, one of which was specifically designated for use by male trafficking victims. The government also provided partial funding and oversight to 21 homes serving vulnerable children, including child trafficking victims. Authorities permitted freedom of movement outside of the shelter for most shelter residents but restricted movement for residents deemed to be under physical threat. Several other NGOs and two foreign government embassies could also provide shelter to trafficking victims.

The government, in partnership with NGOs, could provide additional support measures, customized to victims’ needs, including interpreters, medical services, skill development, temporary work permits, legal support, and resettlement assistance. Some victims may not have received all services necessary for rehabilitation as the government lacked a formal policy mandating the provision of services to all victims and instead provided some services on a case-by-case basis. Some NGOs noted the interpreters provided did not receive training to work with trafficking victims and were usually from the victim’s home country, which put additional pressure on the victim. The government reported spending approximately 66,000 SGD ($48,820) to provide care and support services for trafficking victims, compared with 156,000 SGD ($115,380) in 2020. An NGO continued to support 10 foreign trafficking victims referred by the government in prior reporting periods. The government reported four victims continued to utilize short-term work permits, available for the duration of the investigation and prosecution of the alleged trafficker; compared with five victims in the previous reporting period.

Courts did not provide restitution to any trafficking victims during the reporting period, and the government reported no victims sought restitution in 2021. NGOs offered trafficking victims Pro bono legal assistance to pursue compensation in civil court. The government, in partnership with two NGOs, created a legal toolkit for victims of crime, including trafficking victims, to navigate the criminal justice system. The government issued special immigration passes that allowed foreign victims to remain and work in the country for the duration of investigations and legal proceedings. However, an NGO reported that contrary to current policy, which would allow a foreign victim to apply for new employment and a work permit after the proceedings completed, authorities most likely required foreign victims to leave the country in practice. The government could provide protective measures for victims who participated in prosecutions, including in-camera court proceedings for child victims, protection of the victim’s identity, and media gag-orders for all sex trafficking cases. The government reported one victim participated as a witness in a child sex trafficking prosecution; court proceedings were ongoing, and authorities referred the victim to protective services.

In 2020, the government established an interagency team of officers to manage the risk and outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus among migrant workers and address workers’ issues, including employment, within migrant worker dormitories. However, NGOs reported front-line officers deployed to migrant worker dormitories focused primarily on pandemic-mitigation efforts and did not proactively screen for trafficking indicators; as a result, some victims may have remained unidentified. In 2021, the government expanded a phone application’s ability, previously created for pandemic-related health tracking purposes, to be used to report employer related issues, including trafficking, to MOM directly; NGOs welcomed this expansion of reporting as it increased interactions and reporting options. MOM continued to publicize its phone number and a mobile phone application, as well as three NGO-operated 24-hour hotlines, for migrant workers who experience problems; the government did not report any trafficking-related cases resulting from the hotlines.

The government maintained 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.” In December 2021, the task force virtually held its annual stakeholder consultation with NGOs, businesses, and academia to review the implementation of the national plan. The government continued to budget 80,000 SGD ($59,170) to provide grants to civil society for anti-trafficking awareness-raising campaigns. In addition, the government held awareness campaigns targeting migrant workers and the public. Singapore’s Employment Agencies Act (EAA) mandated licensing and regulation of recruitment agents. The government did not take steps to eliminate all recruitment fees. The EAA rules capped the maximum recruitment fee a worker 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. MOM prosecuted 12 recruitment agencies and issued warning letters or fines to another 44 recruitment agencies for not being licensed, compared with the prosecution of five unlicensed recruitment agencies and warning letters sent to 53 agencies in 2020.

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. However, government policy allowed workers to change their employment without their previous employer’s consent in limited circumstances when workers had employment-related claims, such as salary delays, that MOM deemed valid. Some observers noted this restriction made migrant workers vulnerable to forced labor. 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” that prevented some foreign migrant workers from resisting and contesting exploitation. The government established a new retention program focused on facilitating job-matching and retaining workers after their work permits expired. The government also changed the time window for foreign construction workers to transfer their work permits to a new employer; an industry association had 30 days from when the work permit expired or was cancelled to find a new employer for the worker without needing consent from the current employer, compared to the previous 20-day window before the work permit expired when the employee could find a new employer. If the worker and the previous employer agreed, authorities could extend the work permit for the 30-day period, and the worker could continue to work while the association found a new employer. NGOs welcomed the extended time window but criticized the limitations on worker’s freedom to work and look for a new employer simultaneously without consent from their current employer and that workers were forced to be placed in the job-matching retention system in which they were not allowed to find an employer on their own. In addition, NGOs raised concerns that the previous employer still had the right to renew or terminate the worker’s work permit, limiting the employee’s ability to find new employment. NGOs had encountered cases of early work permit cancellation and cases of employers trying to recover pandemic-related quarantine costs from the employee, sometimes not allowing them to transfer otherwise, despite government prohibitions on this practice. The government introduced a pilot program where quarantine costs could be shared between employers of certain workers if the employee transferred within the first 12 months.

In 2021, the government eased regulations that had allowed employers to limit the movement of migrant workers living in dormitories during the pandemic. However, NGOs reported migrant workers’ freedom of movement continued to be restricted and limited to a greater extent than the general population during the pandemic. From September 2021, the government gradually eased restrictions in practice that allowed migrant workers to visit pre-identified community locations for six hours if pandemic precautions were met; later the criteria for exits were further eased and hours and locations increased. In September 2021, the government reported implementing improved living standards within the dormitories, but in October 2021, migrant workers reported poor living conditions, including improper isolation measures and lack of timely medical assistance, in one of the new dormitories.

Singapore law did not prescribe a minimum wage. Under the Employment Act, wages were negotiated and outlined in individual contracts of service. The law did not detail requirements for foreign domestic workers and fishing crews employed locally, who were covered under the EFMA and for whom the law required employers to provide a document containing employment terms such as monthly salary, number of rest days, and agency fees. The government mandated new policies to detect signs of abuse of foreign domestic workers, including more comprehensive health checks without the employer present, increased random house checks, and two interviews, instead of one, during the first year of employment. In criminal cases of abuse of foreign domestic workers, the High Court previously stipulated that courts should consider compensation for pain and suffering, as well as restitution for wages. In July 2021, MOM passed regulations that, by the end of 2022, employers must provide foreign domestic workers one rest day per month. MOM continued to implement a policy requiring employers to notify MOM if they reduce a migrant worker’s salary from what was stated on the application for the employee’s work permit and after both the employer and employee had agreed to the change in writing. An NGO continued to note 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 termination and repatriation. The government convicted 21 employers for making false declarations of higher salaries to obtain employee work passes, compared with 11 the previous year. MOM allowed employers or recruitment agents to open a fee-free bank account on behalf of the employee as part of the recruitment process so the worker’s salary could be electronically paid; due to the pandemic, the government required employers of migrant workers living in dormitories to open bank accounts for their workers and pay them electronically. Since the introduction of the accounts, two NGOs estimated that more than 840,000 migrant workers had bank accounts in 2021. NGOs reported that despite these efforts, employers still paid some of the workers in cash, did not provide workers with their full base salaries, or illegally deducted expenses from workers’ pay. MOM prohibited employers of foreign domestic workers from retaining any wages or money belonging to the domestic worker; however, NGOs reported employers still did so.

The government mandated foreign migrant workers in the construction, manufacturing, marine shipyard, and processing industries complete the one-day Settling-in-Program (SIP), delivered entirely by an NGO, within 14 days of arriving in Singapore. One of the five modules covered employment rights and information on how to receive assistance; the module included one section on trafficking. An NGO reported that after completing the SIP many migrant workers were still unaware of their rights or whom to reach out to for help. In addition to worker programs, an employer program was mandatory for first-time employers of foreign domestic workers to review their responsibilities; an NGO reported that over time employers likely forgot many of the rules and regulations because they only had to complete the program once and could complete the program online. The government continued to air a pre-departure video at overseas testing centers for construction workers to explain foreign workers’ employment rights in Singapore. The government built new onboarding centers for migrant workers arriving in the country to work in the construction, marine shipyard, and process sectors. These centers were one-stop service centers for workers to complete their medical examinations and SIP. Front-line MOM workers stationed at the center had training on trafficking indicators. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Singapore. Some of the 849,700 foreign work permit holders who comprise almost one-quarter of Singapore’s labor force are at risk of trafficking. Most victims migrate willingly for work in construction, domestic service, performing arts, manufacturing, the service industry, or commercial sex but may later face exploitation in these sectors. To migrate, many workers assume large debts to recruitment agents in their home countries and sometimes in Singapore, placing them at risk for debt bondage. Foreign women who arrive in Singapore to work in the entertainment sector, including nightclubs and bars, may be vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking. Traffickers compel foreign workers 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 more than 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 limited transferability of low-skilled work visas to control or manipulate workers. PRC nationals employed in Singapore at PRC-affiliated company worksites were vulnerable to forced labor. Foreign women sometimes arrive in Singapore with the intention of engaging in Singapore’s regulated commercial sex sector, but under the threat of serious harm or other forms of coercion, they become victims of sex trafficking. Foreign women employed as domestic workers are vulnerable to trafficking. Foreign workers from countries with a small presence in Singapore can experience language barriers that increase their isolation. Anecdotal reports show an increase of locals, permanent residents, and long-term pass holders working in the regulated commercial sex sector, some of whom may be vulnerable to sex trafficking, in connection with a decrease of foreign workers entering the country due to pandemic-related border restrictions. Reports indicate that some fishing vessel captains of long-haul boats that transit or dock at Singaporean ports use physical abuse to force men to perform labor. A small number of Singapore residents facilitate and engage in child sex tourism abroad.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future