Law must not overlook labour trafficking

Bar on what is forced labour should not be set so high that new law ends up nailing no one

A group of Bangladeshi men arrive in Singapore expecting to earn a basic monthly salary of $600 plus overtime because that is what they were told back home when they were recruited to be construction workers.

The amount is stated in the approval letter from Singapore's Ministry of Manpower (MOM) which they receive before they board the flight.

Within days of arriving, however, their employer gives them the lowdown: their basic pay will be $520, and they will have to sign a fresh contract reflecting the reduced terms.

Having taken loans of more than $3,000 to land their jobs here, the men sign on the dotted line.

If they refuse, they know, they might be sent home penniless to face a huge debt.

They start work and soon learn that other workers have been similarly deceived by the same employer, who also makes them work extra hours without overtime pay. There are illegal deductions too and some months their basic salary dips to below $200.

This is a hypothetical case, but such practices are not uncommon here, say migrant worker advocates who deal with foreign workers in various states of distress.

If migrant workers facing such multiple forms of abuse complained in Europe, the United States, Canada or Australia, their allegations, if true, could be prosecuted under laws banning human trafficking. In those countries, the law covers vulnerable migrant workers who are deceived or coerced into commercial sex or labour and exploited.

Singapore is planning a dedicated law to combat human trafficking, but judging by discussions so far, such cases may fall outside its purview. Public consultations on the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill, likely to be introduced in Parliament by November this year, ended on April 18. It covers sex and organ trafficking, which are already illegal here, as well as labour trafficking which is not prohibited under current laws. The Bill is being initiated by Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza, who has spoken up against sex trafficking since 2008.

The proposed law will give law enforcement agencies powers to crack down on organised criminal syndicates that run human trafficking rings and increase maximum penalties.

The public consultations indicate that much of its focus may be on fighting sex trafficking, where vulnerable migrant workers, mainly women and teenagers, are lured here with the promise of jobs as waitresses, maids or factory workers, only to be forced into prostitution. While sex trafficking is abhorrent and must be weeded out, migrant worker advocates and academics alike worry that labour trafficking - potentially a far larger problem in Singapore - may not get the attention it deserves in the Act.

As of last December, there were 985,600 foreign work permit holders here, up from 856,300 four years earlier. Aside from maids, most do low-wage blue-collar jobs in construction sites, shipyards and factories. Their numbers have risen despite higher costs to companies to hire these workers - in the form of higher foreign worker levies.

Foreign worker advocates warn that as levies go up, unscrupulous companies may try to recover their higher costs by paying workers less and making them work longer hours.

Even if fewer than 1 per cent of workers are exploited, their numbers could run into the thousands. The authorities need to investigate these cases and determine which ones could qualify as labour trafficking.

At the final public consultation session on April 15, Mr de Souza provided three hypothetical examples of what could constitute labour trafficking under the new law.

The first involved a woman who was promised a job as a maid but upon arrival was forced to be a prostitute. The perpetrators of such a crime can already be prosecuted for sex trafficking under existing laws here.

The second involved a fisherman forced to work on a ship at sea with little or no pay. A small number of such cases have been reported when ships dock here.

The third was a worker brought here against his will and forced to work for little or no pay. Such cases are virtually unheard of.

While deceiving workers about the nature of work must be outlawed, it is deception on work conditions and practices that is far more common here and the new anti-trafficking law should cover that as well, say migrant worker advocates.

Unlike an ordinary labour offence - like a company not paying its workers - labour trafficking tends to involve multifaceted forms of exploitation.

The Bill intends to criminalise the "selling, buying and hiring of persons for the purposes of labour exploitation", but so far has stopped short of explaining what constitutes labour exploitation.

In a case here, an employer asked 22 construction workers to work a 32-hour shift without any rest. He promised to pay a part of their wages - which had not been paid in six months - if they agreed. They did so, but no money was forthcoming. The boss then asked them to sign new contracts and threatened to send them home if they complained to MOM. Right now, there is no clarity on whether such an egregious case would be considered human trafficking.

The authorities here have stressed that migrant workers who face exploitative work conditions can seek redress under existing laws, such as the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and the Employment Act rather than the proposed human trafficking act.

But there is no publicly available data on how many worker exploitation cases are successfully prosecuted under our existing labour laws each year. In the absence of data, migrant worker activists have charged that the laws are poorly enforced. Besides, these laws do not adequately address some fundamental elements of human trafficking such as deception and coercion, forced labour and the abuse of a victim's vulnerability.

Indeed, for any trafficking law to be effective, one of the most important tasks is to draw up a comprehensive list of indicators on what constitutes trafficking. The International Labour Organisation has a set of nearly 70 indicators of labour trafficking.

Strong indicators of labour trafficking include excessive working days or hours, deception about the job, debt bondage and isolation, confinement and surveillance. Singapore needs to draw up its own list.

There is also a need to define terms such as exploitation, coercion and the abuse of a position of vulnerability, all of which are enshrined in United Nations' anti-trafficking laws.

Changes in the foreign worker recruitment system could also help mitigate the risks of labour trafficking. Unfair practices such as arbitrary contract substitution or forcing workers to work excessive hours occur, charge migrant workers' groups, because companies know that having incurred heavy debts back home, the workers are in no position to bargain. One way forward is to allow work permit holders greater flexibility to change jobs. Currently, if a worker complains, he risks losing his job and being sent home to big debts.

Tackling workers' debt is another way forward. Some commentators have suggested that over time, employers - including maid employers - could bear the recruitment fees so that foreign workers will not be in such heavy debt and in bondage to recruitment agents. This will take time as it will involve higher costs for industry employers and for households. But it could prove more effective than foreign worker levies in keeping worker numbers in check.

Another key issue for those drafting the Bill to consider is whether Singapore needs supplementary regulations requiring big companies to show that their supply chains are free from forced labour.

Above all, we need to ensure that the definitions of what constitutes labour trafficking are not left vague or the bar set so high that the law ends up nabbing and nailing no one. That would be the same as not having a law at all.

radhab@sph.com.sg