A key component of human trafficking, recruitment often involves labor and migration brokers, with varying levels of complicity, in the process of exploitation. Recruitment practices for low-wage migrant workers may increase the risk for exploitation as a result of the costs incurred to the worker. Recruiters and agents themselves may be abusive. Moreover, the recruitment experiences of workers pre-migration can be linked to vulnerability to exploitation not only during employment, but also in the process of repatriation. In Singapore, the repatriation process itself can be forced and abusive, exacerbating individual risk by enabling employers to deport workers without pay or compensation for injury.
Recruiters reflect both informal (family, friends) and formal (employees or sub-contractors of recruitment companies) connections in the labor migration brokering process. These individuals advertise jobs, “scout” or headhunt, arrange travel documents and visas, secure contracts – perhaps using coercion, deception or substitution – facilitate training and, in some cases, manage workers on-site. Agents may not be based in the country of destination. As in the case of migrant Chinese construction workers in Singapore, recruitment agents are often subcontracted locally. Although segmented by industry (domestic work, construction, fishing) in Singapore, these agencies effectively operate under the same business model.
In facilitating initial employment or migration, recruiters may charge illegal or exorbitant fees to the worker (for placement or other charges, such as accommodation), which lead to the worker borrowing money, taking out loans or even selling property. Although Singapore’s Employment Agencies Act caps recruitment fees, the law excludes any protections for fees accrued outside Singapore, resulting in additional pre-departure costs borne by the worker. Some workers in Singapore are also susceptible to kickbacks; either paid to the employer directly by the worker or through an intermediary agent, as part of a job placement fee. This money might also be demanded by an employer upon contract renewal, or compounded by fees added through the process of changing employers, as documented in a TWC2 study on migrant construction workers:
The average contract renewal fee of our respondents is the equivalent of as much as one-sixth of their basic annual salaries. Intermediary fees can bring about the financial ruin of the small percentage of workers (perhaps about 5%) who have their initial employment contracts prematurely terminated. Intermediary fees are also devastating for the thousands of workers who return to their home countries after working for a year in Singapore. Intermediary fees cannot typically be recovered in one year, yet migrants often find themselves unemployed after completing their initial one year contract. Finally, because stable, long-term employment opportunities in Singapore’s construction industry are rare, experienced workers typically must change jobs (and pay additional intermediary fees) multiple times.
While kickbacks are illegal in Singapore, arguably, there are few substantial deterrents as a result of inadequate enforcement. Moreover, fees may be disguised as personal loans or other payments, making wage calculation for workers (not to mention service providers, etc.) difficult to understand, even when complaints are reported.
The resulting debt from these fees heightens the vulnerability of some workers to abusive or exploitative situations. For example, those who feel unable to leave their employer or complain to authorities because doing so would risk their jobs and subsequent income (complicating the ability to pay any recruitment debts). Recruiters may also directly abuse individuals. For instance, according to a report by HOME on foreign domestic workers, after arriving in Singapore (as well as between jobs), foreign domestic workers stay in agency accommodation. Some women in the study reported verbal, physical and sexual abuse by agents during this time.
While there is a need to better regulate recruiting agencies, scrutinized to a lesser degree are those companies that profit from repatriation. In Singapore, employers of Work Permit holders are required to pay a $5000 security bond under the Immigration Act; employers who fail to repatriate their employees once a contract is terminated or completed are required to pay the bond. Repatriation companies are “hired by employers to find and repatriate foreign workers who are reported missing or who are no longer needed by the companies that sponsored their visas.” In 2011, in response to a parliamentary question, the Minister for Manpower explained:
Some employers use third parties such as repatriation companies to ensure the smooth and proper exit of their workers. Sometimes, employers also use repatriation companies to house workers in the interim while any claims are being resolved before they are repatriated back to their home countries.
However, reports from service providers working with migrant workers indicate that employers may use companies to avoid paying salaries or compensation for injuries. Reportedly, the cost of using such a service is around $200-300 per case, much cheaper than forgoing the cost of the bond (not to mention compensation). As a result, repatriation companies’ services provide a handy way to sack “problematic” employees who try and report abuse or claim entitlements. Perhaps, as reported in a recent case, workers may be offered a token amount of compensation; although generally far less then what they are owed. The Singapore Government says it investigates all complaints, and has, at times, issued warnings to companies “not to abet any employer avoiding payment of wages or preventing workers from making claims or withhold property”, although these companies are currently unregulated.
Despite this, as outlined in A joint submission by members of Solidarity for Migrant Workers for the 11th Session of the Universal Periodic Review:
There are numerous reports from migrant workers of intimidation and forced repatriation of workers by repatriation companies hired by employers. Some use extrajudicial violence and wrongful confinement [illegal under the Penal Code] to compel a worker to leave the country even though the worker has a legitimate claim against the employer.
The US TIP Report notes, “through the use of assaults, threats and coercion, [workers are prevented] from complaining about abuses to authorities”. Because employers can cancel a work permit at any time, workers may fear deportation and be coerced even via the threat of repatriation.
Clearly, employers who engage the services of repatriation companies in an effort to skirt obligations to workers should be held to account, particularly as in doing so they are likely committing criminal acts and/or violating Work Pass regulations. Repatriation companies should be held responsible, not only for working with errant employers, but for breaking the law in instances where abuse has occurred. The Government itself has an obligation to robustly enforce the law and prosecute offenders. Currently, there is a necessity to develop a greater, more holistic, understanding of the collective contributions by recruiters, employers and repatriation companies to the exploitation of workers – particularly in situations in which trafficking indicators, such as non-physical coercion, wrongful confinement and withholding salary, are present.
On a larger scale, this has implications for the Government’s stated intentions to adopt a victim-centered anti-trafficking policy. Forced repatriation of exploited workers, as well as the (sometimes forced) deportation of trafficking victims, may exacerbate vulnerabilities incurred through recruitment (fees) and employment where workers rights are not enforced. Repatriation without appropriate compensation coupled with existing debt compounds risks to workers and their families, perhaps countering prevention efforts, not to mention risk for further exploitation.