On March 21, 2012 the Singapore Government launched the Trafficking in Persons National Plan of Action. It marked an important milestone in the changing attitude of the Singapore Government toward human trafficking. The creation of a multi-agency Taskforce combined with extended engagement between Government and civil society and a public consultation process hold the promise of a new approach by Government to this issue.
However somewhat absent from the debate on how the Government should proceed is the general public. The hidden nature of trafficking in Singapore may be one reason – it is not an issue that obviously confronts you on your way to work or on your Saturday stroll down Orchard Road. As such, public activism on this issue has been restricted to relatively niche events, such as a seminar held by ONE Singapore in January looking at child prostitution, trafficking and poverty; or to passive activism, such as the signing of the Body Shop’s petition to stop the trafficking of children and young people.
Further, if local media and blogs are to be believed, very few people in Singapore have made any connection between the treatment of female domestic workers, part of the foundation of Singapore’s economic success, and the issue of trafficking. Fewer still have made the link, between the National Plan of Action and the recent announcement that from January 2013, employers will be required to give their domestic workers a day off.
NGOs such as TWC2 and HOME, together with others, have campaigned for domestic workers to be guaranteed one day off per week. Public resistance to this campaign has centred on concerns about the potential promiscuity of this group and the chances of pregnancy (which is considered a breach of the domestic worker’s work permit conditions and has possible financial implications for employers – the forfeiture of the security bond) and the burden that will be borne by employers in having to take over the domestic work on a Sunday. The Government’s decision to make a day off compulsory is, in voter terms, a potentially risky step to take. However, because the line between trafficking and labour exploitation is a thin one, there is little merit in the development of an Action Plan which commits to prevent trafficking if the potential for labour exploitation within Singapore remains a reality.
There has long been a need to change the framework of protections, or lack thereof, for female domestic workers. Tucked away in the box rooms of Singapore’s apartments, this group is one of the most vulnerable to exploitation. At the extreme end, they are isolated by language, restricted in movement, and at the mercy of potentially unreasonable demands with regard to conditions of work, accommodation and pay, and as the recent prosecution of an employer showed, vulnerable to physical abuse. The provision of a day off offers the potential for female domestic workers to have a break from the sometimes pressurised environment of the work/home place, develop skills, and nourish their spiritual and emotional health through religious attendance or meeting with friends. The working day of a domestic worker is often long and can involve caring for both children and the elderly, as well as cooking meals, cleaning the home and laundering clothes. The worker lives with the family and thus can potentially be on call 24 hours per day. Many domestic workers are treated well by their employers, provided with a day off, and ensured that they have good working and accommodation conditions.
The fact that the new measure allows employers the flexibility of providing employees with one day’s wages in lieu of a day off is of concern. The payment instead of a day off must be mutually agreed between employee and employer; alternatively, another rest day can be given in lieu at a later point in the same month. However, this potentially ignores the unbalanced power relationship between worker and employer combined with the fact that the aim of migrant workers is to make money; it is unclear how much impact the day off measure will have on the working conditions provided to domestic workers. For those suffering abuse at the hands of their employer, they are the least likely to be given a day off, though they may be most in need.
There is also the need for Government to engage with the specific pressures on working women in Singapore, who may wish for (and financially require) a successful career outside the home, and are subject to the culture of long working hours in Singapore, and their filial and parental responsibilities. An examination of the comments on blogs and message boards on this issue finds these women often feel isolated, ignored and under-appreciated (perhaps with more in common with their domestic workers than they realise). As part of Singapore’s broader commitment to equality and women’s rights, steps need to be taken to address these concerns.
The Government faces a battle ahead to develop support amongst their citizens for domestic workers to have a day off. As such, there is merit in making a stronger link in policy terms between the provision of better working conditions for low skilled migrant labour, worker exploitation and anti-trafficking efforts. Increasing legislative protection for the former, together with robust enforcement of these protections, should send a strong message to those who consider Singapore to be a haven for shoddy work practices with space for trafficking activities.
To enable this to happen effectively, the Government needs to fulfil its proposed commitment to public education on human trafficking. Within this public education campaign needs to be an emphasis on the thin line between trafficking and labour exploitation, and from this, an emphasis on the new laws and measures to protect vulnerable workers, such as female domestic workers and the anti-trafficking agenda.
Where do all of these changes leave ordinary Singaporeans? As the Body Shop petition showed Singaporeans are interested in and committed to, albeit in an understated way, to the engaging with the eradication of trafficking. The changes made to the working conditions of female domestic workers is the first step. These changes have been met with opposition and have tapped into the wider debate about the position of foreigners within Singapore; however, it does seem to have been relatively, begrudgingly accepted. The emphasis should now be on tying this provision to broader anti-trafficking measures to both raise public awareness on trafficking and improve the treatment of female domestic workers particularly, and all migrant labour more broadly.