As the end of 2012 approaches we decided to conduct an informal assessment of human trafficking-related issues in Singapore.
Aside from the National Plan of Action, the big policy deal this year was the consultation and subsequent enactment of the Amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA), which took effect on 9th November. This legislation enhances the Ministry of Manpower’s ability to investigate and enforce employment practices, and creates harsher penalties and new offences to address employment abuses. For instance, kickbacks, payments made to an employer by a worker in return for a job, are now a criminal offense, as are illegally importing and supplying foreign labor (involving routes outside the existing work permit scheme) and illegally recovering employment costs from foreign workers. The latter would include, for example, deducting the cost of health insurance from an employee, whereas this should be provided by the employer.
This has been received cautiously by NGOs, which point to prevailing gaps between new legislation and the capacity to enforce these new amendments. For instance, in the case of migrant construction workers, kickbacks received by employers are hard to prove as they are usually taken in cash and pay slips are rarely given to employees, resulting in a lack of necessary documentary evidence. Moreover, existing financial penalties remain inadequate in deterring those who wish to abuse the system. Occasionally, employers are held to account, such as a case in August in which a company director plead guilty to receiving kickbacks, he was “instructing the Work Permit holders to pay a weekly payment of S$300 each. The Work Permit holders were also not paid their salaries amounting to S$3,600, and had to earn their income solely from tips given by the customers of the KTV.”
TTRP has reservations about several newly established offences. For instance, foreign workers can now be penalized for submitting forged educational certificates to qualify for S Pass or Employment Pass (EP). This contravention includes a presumptive clause, which means that a work pass applicant is presumed to know and understand all information provided (on their behalf) in a work permit application. Arguably, this contradicts anti-trafficking initiatives in Singapore, which should take into account fraudulent and coercive aspects of contract abuse, as noted in previous posts by TWC2.
The Singapore Government has been busy in November: prosecuting salary and kickback violators as well as stepping up enforcement inspections to ensure compliance with employment rights. These inspections come alongside an awareness-raising component for employees regarding their employment rights in Singapore, in addition to a reporting mechanism, which enables complaints via a hotline. In October, the government set the bar higher for state-contracted labor through an accreditation scheme, requiring cleaning companies to ensure high wages and standards for workers in order to be eligible to apply for government contracts. The government also intends to produce a public consultation paper on the Employment Act and is “currently also working on the second tranche of the EFMA review, which will focus on improving the well-being of workers, and ensuring a fair balance of rights and responsibilities between employers and workers.”
In the meantime, how are the approximately 200,000 domestic workers in Singapore faring? There have been a few successful prosecutions against abuse and delinquent employers. Compulsory training on workplace safety was introduced and attended by domestic workers between May and August; and from November employers of Indonesian domestic workers will be contractually obligated to increase employees’ minimum monthly salary. (Sensing a shortfall in Indonesian labor, the Singapore government is debating the merits of approving Cambodia as a source country for domestic workers). And, while domestic workers were granted a day off, domestic worker agencies await both guidelines outlining how these measures are to be operationalized in addition to guidance on a proposed dispute resolution process. The latter of which would be intended to settle disagreements using mediation between domestic workers and their employers on issues such as the terms of a day off.
But, as highlighted in Singapore NGO HOME’s CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) Shadow Report, current policy does not go far enough to curtail the psychological abuse, injury, unauthorized wage deduction, excessive work hours, isolation, and exploitation experienced by some domestic workers. Excluded from the Employment Act as well as the Work Injury Compensation Act (which provides compensation in the event of death, permanent incapacity or medical expenses incurred as a result of employment), domestic workers remain vulnerable with respect to their conditions of employment. For instance, Singapore has yet to adequately address concerns regarding: enforcement of regulations pertaining to domestic workers in private homes, exorbitant loans paid by laborers to recruiting agencies or employer control of legal documentation, such as passports, which may be used to intimidate, force, or coerce employees. The International Trade Union Confederation echoed similar concerns in its report to the World Trade Organization General Council:
Foreign workers’ residence rights are pegged to their employment contract…this means that if an employer cancels the employment contract, the worker is subject to deportation procedures. Some employers threaten foreign domestic workers with denouncing their employment contract in order to force them into long hours, restrict their movement and impose other illegal working conditions. Many foreign workers enter the country’s workforce immensely indebted and subsequently are coerced into jobs they did not accept on departing.
What about low paid migrant workers typically employed in the construction, manufacturing, maritime and service industries in Singapore? Foreign construction workers comprise more than 85 per cent of the construction workforce in Singapore, the vast majority of whom,rely on unlicensed or poorly regulated recruitment agencies. Disputes over pay matters, recruitment fees and working conditions have been highlighted in the media, prompting stronger government action to deal with errant employers.
However, many continue to struggle with workplace abuse as well as health and safety issues reported by NGOs in Singapore; highlighted by an increase in the number of workplace injuries this year and reported concerns about employee living conditions. Against a backdrop of high-profile work accidents over the summer, the government stepped up inspections on construction sites.
Sex workers have received limited attention lately, save for cases of men arrested for pimping and vice offences, including several high profile online prostitution cases. However, sex workers have been subjected to several raids this autumn, with more, reportedly, on the way. Recently, law enforcement has taken a keen interest in illicit massage parlors (serving as the occasional front to prostitution) in which foreign “masseuses” have been arrested for immigration and vice-related offences.
Incidentally, the Immigration (Amendment) Bill criminalizing sham marriages passed without much fanfare. Section 57C defines a Marriage of Convenience as one in which a person marries knowing or having reason to believe the purpose of the marriage is “to obtain an immigration advantage” and “where any gratification is offered… given or received as an inducement or reward…for entering into the marriage”. The impetus for such a law was underscored by Mr. S Isawaran, Minister, Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Home Affairs and Second Minister for Trade and Industry, who cited “significant increases” in such arrangements (12 cases this year, up from the usual handful). The penalties are stiff ($10,000 and maximum jail term of 10 years), allowing immigration officials to prosecute couples, middlemen or marriage agencies. No mention of force, fraud, coercion, exploitation, trafficking, or forced marriage as a defense within the Bill.
On the international stage, Singapore proclaims that it upholds international labor standards. Most recently, in June, the state ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Convention C187, enhancing its commitments to workplace health and safety.
As for human trafficking specifically, we have yet to observe substantial action by the Government beyond passive local engagement with the issue after the release of the National Plan of Action. In addition, recent legislative changes (such as new EFMA Amendments) should take into consideration the impact on proposed anti-trafficking legislation, for example in the aforementioned relationship between fraudulent documents and exploitation. They should also be accompanied by robust enforcement measures to combat exploitation broadly. As Jolovan Wham pointed out,
we have yet to see any substantial changes in the way exploited and trafficked migrant workers are protected. When frontline government officers are unable to identify possible trafficking cases for investigation even after they have been alerted to them, what about the many others who have approached them for assistance without a NGO worker present?
What does the future hold for Singapore? More migrant labor. Against a backdrop of ongoing national debates on foreign job competition, economic sustainability, an ageing workforce and related concerns about social integration and inclusion, the government itself projects a need for more foreign manpower by 2030 in the healthcare, construction and domestic work sectors. Is Singapore prepared? NGOs have raised concerns about infrastructure capabilities; if the state will be able to meet the needs of additional labor. What has yet to be seen is the impact of increased foreign labor demand on labor exploitation, particularly in low-wage sectors. While developing strategies to offset Singapore’s dependency on foreign labor, such as suggestions to integrate foreign spouses, hopefully the government is investing in creative solutions to prevent and provide protections for vulnerable workers on which the economy significantly depends.