March 21st marks the two-year anniversary of the Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce’s launch of an Action Plan to combat human trafficking. Mirroring 2012, 2013 produced little substance in the way of anti-trafficking initiatives. As Singapore’s landscape shifts, it becomes clear that the anti-trafficking Taskforce is operating in a silo, failing to engage with broader underlying labor concerns affecting exploited individuals. TTRP has previously commented on the lack of action by the Taskforce in both our response to the US TIP Report and our six-month review of the NPA. Continued silence by Government on human trafficking enables an easy review of 2013: a lack of transparency and substantial collaboration with NGOs has resulted in a failure to account for progress achieved across all stated objectives of the plan.
As the consultation process begins for Christopher de Souza’s Private Members Bill on human trafficking (to be tabled in November), we are reminded that partnership, a key component of any anti-trafficking strategy, is strategically invaluable. Ongoing collaboration with local NGOs, particularly service providers, empowers government officials to be aware of ongoing concerns – not “surprised” by evidence of exploitation – and provide key linkages between the needs of migrant workers and the changing local landscape. Embedded within a free and fair democracy are principles that not only hold the government to account, but those that require civil society to hold the government to account. If non-profit advocates expect government to commit to anti-trafficking strategies, then they do a disservice when that accountability is taken for granted.
In 2013, the conditions of migrant workers in Singapore received international and local attention due to worker protests, paralleled by heightened public involvement in foreign worker issues. These issues coalesced after the December riots in Little India.
Since our statement on the riots, the government has staunchly defended the isolated nature of events, while denying the widespread abuse of foreign workers. Officials state too little evidence exists to support claims that unrest was fueled by migrant discontent. The Acting Minister of Manpower found it,
puzzling as to how some individuals can so quickly conclude or criticise that there is widespread and systemic abuse of the foreign workforce; or that these were the reasons for the riot […] In the same vein, some foreign media just echo these points, but offer only scant evidence for their assertions.
A dearth of such evidence has not, however, stopped the government from responding through initiatives creating alcohol restrictions in Little India and the deportation of 57 workers with the aim of maintaining public order. Notably, temporary laws designed to broaden the power of local law enforcement faced opposition from the Workers Party. Party Chairman Sylvia Lim “questioned the need for it, saying it would pre-empt the findings of a committee of inquiry [COI] set up to investigate the causes of the riot”. The Committee’s report is due in June, after the law comes into force in March.
To support the argument that the majority of foreign workers are content in Singapore, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, in a widely cited Ministerial Statement, reported that according to MOM research conducted in 2011 (with the Migrant Workers Center) and 2013 (the latter of which appears unavailable),
Foreign workers in Singapore are, by and large, treated decently by their employers. […] Of the over 150 foreign construction workers interviewed at the airport, more than 90% did not have any employment issues; and 80% were happy working in Singapore.
Government officials discount a significant fact in dealing with these issues: exploited individuals within these groups are marginalized. This is not to say that labor exploitation caused the riots, but that taking the opinion of the majority of workers, as highlighted in MOM’s research, at face value should not discount worker discontent as a factor for social unrest. Conducting surveys with migrants who plan to stay or return only comprises part of the picture. The prompt deportation of the men identified by government as involved in the riots leaves one to wonder how their perspectives could inform the Committee’s findings.
As for workers’ rights, Mr. Tan said,
Their rights and help available are clearly listed. For example, before they arrive here, we make sure that workers know what their pay will be via the In-Principal Approval Letter that is issued to them. During the Work Permit card issuance process, workers are also informed of channels of assistance, provided by both Government agencies and NGOs. And obviously, they always have recourse with their own embassies or High Commissions as well.
This is in contrast to the 2011 MOM study, which found that WP and S-pass holders in the construction industry were not confident about the process required in claiming work injury compensation. Merely informing a worker that entitlements exist without providing individuals recourse for complaint may result in the underreporting of abuse and a lack of substantial protection for workers.
Local NGOs have documented the challenges faced by workers in making claims against employers and their right to redress,
Migrant workers abused by their employer or labour recruiter may face difficulties in having their complaints examined. Employers may deliberately not give to workers, or fail to keep important employment records such as contracts, salary slips and time cards. As a result, workers find it difficult to substantiate claims for employment related abuses with the authorities. Employers can unilaterally cancel a work permit and repatriate the workers as soon as they learn a complaint has been filed, or to prevent a complaint from being filed […] Employers can also prevent an employee from getting a new employer by refusing to cancel the existing work permit.
Echoing the ongoing frustrations of local service providers, reports such as that written by HOME on migrant Chinese construction workers, illustrate barriers faced by low-wage migrant groups and highlight the expensive, time-consuming process involved in worker rights dispute resolution, often conducted without recourse to assistance or legal aid. The mere provision of channels to vindicate grievances does little to protect workers. Even in cases in which a claimant is successfully awarded compensation, enforcement by government remains woefully inadequate.
The President of TWC2 gave evidence to the COI on the Cuff Road Food Program, which provides hundreds of meals to migrant workers per day. In response, MOM’s Divisional Director of Foreign Manpower Management, Kevin Teoh reiterated the responsibility of employers to provide for the basic needs for employees, even in instances in which an employee files a complaint. He stated, “the ministry would step in if they found that the employers are unwilling or unable to do so”. When asked by the Committee’s Chairman, “where workers in need could find their next meal”, Mr Teoh suggested that the government would refer those workers to NGOs. So much for government stepping in.
Local news stories such as Riot not due to ‘built-up dissatisfaction’ of foreign workers’ living conditions in Singapore that focus on causation between the riot and migrant worker conditions, skirt underlying problems faced by migrants. This focus is at odds with reporting more substantive evidence given by, for instance, Deputy Executive Secretary of the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union (BATU), Jennie Yeo. According to the article, Ms Yeo,
surprised the committee when she raised the issue of employers retaining the passports of workers – a practice which does not align with labour regulations here – and demanding a security deposit of up to $5,000 when workers request for their passports to open a bank account, for instance. She also told the committee that many employers do not share a copy of the employment contracts with the workers. She also said that the workers are rarely issued with pay-slips. While these are common grievances among migrant workers here, Ms Yeo could not confirm if Batu has alerted the authorities about them or if there were any investigations into such practices.
Apparent above are the presence of human trafficking indicators. Although the focus of the Committee is specific to the riots, the government in this instance appears disengaged from the existence of exploitation and abuse faced by some migrant workers in Singapore reported by local service providers.
We await the findings of the COI report along with the outcomes of Mr. de Souza’s Bill consultation with interest.