Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April 2014, 11:39 GMT

2011 Trafficking in Persons Report - Singapore

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 27 June 2011
Cite as United States Department of State, 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report - Singapore, 27 June 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e12ee4c1b.html [accessed 24 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Singapore (Tier 2)

Singapore is a destination country for men, women and girls subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. There are over 1.1 million foreign workers in Singapore, who make up over one-third of Singapore's total labor force. Migrating from Thailand, Burma, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and elsewhere in Asia, the majority of foreign workers are unskilled and semi-skilled laborers employed in construction, domestic households, and the hospitality and service industries. During the year, there was greater reporting on victims of forced labor identified by NGOs and foreign missions on long-haul fishing boats that dock in Southeast Asian ports, including Singapore. Workers reported severe abuse by fishing boat captains, the inability to disembark from their vessels, the inability to terminate their contracts, and the nonpayment of wages. Many foreign workers face deception and fraud by recruiters about the ultimate nature of their employment or salary. Foreign workers also reported confiscation of their passports, restrictions on their movements, illegal withholding of their pay, threats of forced repatriation without pay, or physical or sexual abuse – all potential indicators of trafficking.

There were reports of employers hiring Singaporean repatriation companies to seize, confine, and escort, including through the use of assaults, threats, and coercion, to the airport foreign workers, sometimes in order to prevent workers from complaining of abuses, including conditions of forced labor, or seeking redress through the Ministry of Manpower. There have been some reports of employers who tried to get their workers deported by canceling their work permits and later alerting the police of their expired immigration status.

Many migrant workers, including those in domestic service, in Singapore face debts to recruitment agencies in both Singapore and their home countries associated with their employment, which makes them vulnerable to forced labor. A 2010 report produced by NGOs found that, on average, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Chinese migrant workers in Singapore paid fees to employment agencies that constitute at least 10 months of their potential earnings such debt makes migrants vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage. Exorbitant fees are sometimes the result of multiple layers of sub-contracting to smaller agencies and individual recruiters, commissions paid to Singaporean agencies, and sometimes, kickbacks to Singaporean employers. To hide illegal fees, agencies and employers sometimes mask them as payments from the worker for personal loans or as other payments. The practice of arbitrary fines, fees, and other deductions from salary made it difficult for workers to understand how their wages were calculated, particularly as many workers did not possess a copy of their contract, and could be used by traffickers to keep workers in a situation of debt bondage. Many foreign workers have credible fears of losing their work visas and being deported, since employers have the ability to repatriate workers at anytime during their contracts. Additionally, low-skilled workers are prohibited or severely restricted from seeking alternative employment and transferring employers, and Singaporean employers have unilateral rights to cancel their employees' work permits and can submit complaints about worker behavior to have future employment bans placed on them.

Some women from Thailand, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal are recruited in their home countries with offers of legitimate employment but upon arrival in Singapore, are deceived or forced into prostitution. Some women from these countries enter Singapore with the intention of engaging in prostitution but upon arrival are subjected to forced prostitution under the threat of serious harm, including financial harm. Sex trafficking victims often enter Singapore on tourist visas arranged by their recruiters, though there were reports that victims enter Singapore on six-month entertainment visas. Some foreign women in "forest brothels" located on public lands near migrant worker dormitories are reportedly victims of trafficking. It is believed substantial recruitment networks, including organized crime syndicates, are involved in international sex trafficking of women and girls to Singapore. Singaporean men have reportedly been a source of demand for child sex tourism in Southeast Asia.

The Government of Singapore does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. During the year, the government reversed its longstanding approach of denying a significant labor trafficking problem in the country and acknowledged its need to take more robust efforts to tackle problems of both forced labor and forced prostitution among Singapore's foreign migrant population. Authorities formed an interagency committee to combat trafficking, and announced that Singapore would adopt the 2000 UN TIP Protocol's definition of trafficking as the government's working definition, though the government has not yet ratified the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

The government made initial efforts to adopt proactive trafficking victim identification procedures among foreign women arrested for prostitution, though it has yet to make similar efforts among foreign laborers. The government reported six sex trafficking convictions; these offenders were convicted of living off the earnings of prostitution and other related offenses, as Singapore does not have a specific anti-trafficking law. Some imposed sentences were below one year's imprisonment and as such, were inadequate punishments for this serious crime. Despite ongoing reports of forced labor in Singapore, the government did not prosecute or convict any offenders of labor trafficking during the reporting period. Despite its financial resources and capacity, the government should have been more successful in proactively identifying and assisting victims of both sex and labor trafficking.

Recommendations for Singapore: Investigate and prosecute an increased number of both sex and labor trafficking cases; prosecute employers and employment agencies who unlawfully confiscate workers' passports as a means of holding them in a state of involuntary servitude, or who use other means to extract forced labor; make efforts to prosecute and punish repatriation companies which forcefully and illegally restrain and repatriate migrant workers who would otherwise complain about forced labor conditions; improve procedures to screen foreign women arrested for prostitution-related offenses and identify potential trafficking victims; develop robust procedures to identify potential traffickers and trafficking victims by immigration officers at ports of entry and other law enforcement personnel; cease the practice of restricting the movement of trafficking victims; make greater efforts to assist victims assisting in the investigation process in obtaining employment; dedicate exclusive resources to address the country's human trafficking problem through greater assistance to foreign trafficking victims; extend the government's legal aid scheme to cover foreign trafficking victims to ensure that all employees have equal access to judicial redress; reduce the demand for commercial sex acts in Singapore by vigorously enforcing existing laws against importing women for purposes of prostitution, trafficking in women and girls, importing women or girls by false pretenses, living on or trading in prostitution, and keeping brothels; increase the cooperative exchange of information about potential trafficking issues and allegations of trafficking offenses with NGOs and foreign diplomatic missions in Singapore in order to improve anti-trafficking responses in Singapore; make greater efforts to educate and inform migrant workers of the legal recourse available to victims of trafficking, and how to seek remedies against traffickers; work with sending country governments to improve transparency on the fees payable by foreign workers for job placement in Singapore to render them less vulnerable to debt bondage; devote resources to researching the phenomenon of both sex and labor trafficking within and across national borders; conduct public awareness campaigns to inform citizens and residents of the penalties for involvement in trafficking for sexual exploitation or forced labor; and ratify the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

Prosecution

The Government of Singapore demonstrated limited law enforcement efforts to combat trafficking in persons during the year. Singaporean law criminalizes some forms of trafficking through its Penal Code and Women's Charter. Singaporean law does not prohibit the forced prostitution of men, although there is no evidence of this occurring in Singapore. Article 140 of the Women's Charter does not prohibit non-physical forms of coercion, such as debt bondage or threat of abuse of the legal process, and Article 141 only prohibits the movement of women and girls for trafficking, and does not define the term "trafficking." Penalties prescribed for sex trafficking offenses in the Women's Charter include a maximum of five years' imprisonment, which is sufficiently stringent, but not commensurate with other serious crimes, such as rape. During the year, the government convicted six sex trafficking offenders for prostitution-related offenses. Convicted offenders were given low penalties ranging from fines to up to 15 months' imprisonment. Authorities did not prosecute or convict any offenders of labor trafficking during the reporting period. The government noted that eight cases of trafficking reported to them were found to be false or unverified, 36 are pending further information, and one case was undergoing investigation.

According to observers, Singaporean law enforcement authorities continued to display a reactive posture toward human trafficking crimes, typically waiting for victims to come forward and file complaints before investigating trafficking offenses. While the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) maintained responsibility for investigating all labor abuses, the police were responsible for investigating any criminal offenses under the Penal Code's forced labor statute. MOM interviewed several fishermen who claimed abuses suggesting human trafficking but reported that they could not further investigate due to lack of jurisdiction over the suspected offenses. The basis for this lack of jurisdiction was unclear, as Singaporean courts have jurisdiction over criminal acts of recruitment that are a part of trafficking crimes, such as the recruitment of workers subjected to forced labor. While there were increased reports during the year of forced labor on fishing vessels that originated in Singapore, the government did not report any prosecutions or convictions in such cases. Nongovernmental sources continued to express concern about the lack of willingness and ability of Singaporean police and immigration officers to identify potential sex trafficking victims, mount thorough investigations, and prosecute cases. The lack of a mandatory day off provided under Singaporean law to domestic workers restricts their opportunities to seek help when faced with abuses, including forced labor conditions; this created a challenge for Singaporean police in identifying forced labor victims among domestic workers, and for the government and NGOs in their outreach efforts. Some Singaporean employment agencies reportedly advise employers to confiscate the passports of their foreign employees – a practice that is well-documented in facilitating forced labor. Although the Ministry of Manpower responded to complaints regarding passport confiscation and illegal detention of individuals by repatriation companies, the government did not report referrals to the police for investigation of possible trafficking in these cases. There were no criminal prosecutions or convictions of employers or employment agencies who withheld passports of foreign workers as a means of holding employees in compelled service.

While the Employment Agencies Act prohibited employment agencies from charging job seekers more than 10 percent of their first month's salary, many agencies continue to charge migrant workers thousands of dollars in recruitment fees, making them vulnerable to forced labor. During the year, although the Ministry of Manpower, acting in response to two NGO referrals, secured the release of foreign workers detained at repatriation companies, the government did not pursue any criminal investigations or prosecutions for potential trafficking in such cases. The government facilitated anti-trafficking training opportunities for its police force, and began to distribute a trafficking indicator card to assist front-line law enforcement officers with identifying trafficking cases. The Singapore Police Force began compiling a new handbook for law enforcement officers, drawing on best practices shared by international partners.

Protection

The government showed minimal progress in identifying and protecting trafficking victims, despite ample financial resources. The government reported that it provided funding to three general purpose shelters and dormitories that could be used to house trafficking victims; however, it did not operate any trafficking-specific shelters. The government did not fund NGOs that provide shelter and other services addressing the specific needs of foreign victims of trafficking. Non-governmental actors in Singapore reported identifying at least 146 male and female victims of forced prostitution and forced labor during the year. Authorities reported offering assistance to 15 victims from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore in five sex trafficking cases, only one of which was the result of a proactive investigation by officials. The government offered shelter to the victims, and one child victim remained in government custody; another child victim left the shelter and all adult victims chose to reside with acquaintances in Singapore. Some of the victims were reportedly provided with initial counseling and medical assistance. The government reported that it could not provide information on any labor trafficking victims identified during the reporting period. Non-government actors reported a significant increase in the number of fishermen, 54 in 2010, who were victims of forced labor identified during the year. In early 2011, the Government of Singapore adopted a set of human trafficking indicators, shared by a foreign government, for use by law enforcement personnel to identify victims. Authorities reported that efforts to proactively identify sex trafficking victims among the high-risk population of 4,500 foreign females arrested in 7,083 arrests for prostitution violations identified only 81 trafficking victims, 23 of whom were children in prostitution. During the year, authorities reported identifying one Singaporean child sex trafficking victim. Non-government observers expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the government's victim identification protocols during anti-vice sweeps, believing instead that the focus is on efforts to identify immigration violators. In the arrests of 4,500 women for prostitution offenses, authorities ordered the foreign women to leave the country without adequately screening for trafficking indicators. According to NGOs and foreign embassies, women and girls in prostitution may be detained by police in a vice operation; due to inadequate victim identification, trafficking victims may still be subjected to penalties for immigration violations or for soliciting. The government provided temporary shelter services for victims of forced labor during the year. The Ministry of Manpower funded the Migrant Workers Centre, which served as a short-term shelter for workers in distress, as well as a facility for foreign domestic workers involved in employment disputes, though the government did not report whether either facility assisted any trafficking victims during the year. Embassies of labor source countries operated shelters for their nationals, primarily for female domestic workers involved in employment disputes – some of whom suffered abuse by employers – and women engaged in prostitution, some of whom the embassies determined were trafficking victims. The Singaporean government could dedicate exclusive resources to address the country's human trafficking problem, including through greater assistance to foreign trafficking victims, rather than having the response to the issue subsumed into general social welfare programs.

The Singaporean government did not provide victims of sex or labor trafficking with legal alternatives to removal to countries where they may face hardship or retribution. The government did not provide incentives, such as legal aid for the pursuit of civil suits, for foreign victims of trafficking to participate voluntarily in investigations and prosecutions of trafficking offenses. The MOM reported that some trafficking victims who assisted the government as prosecution witnesses received Singaporean work passes. Authorities made legal aid available to Singaporean citizens and permanent residents found to be trafficking victims. While authorities reported that identified victims had freedom of movement in government shelters, non-government sources continued to report that victims residing in government shelters sometimes have their movements restricted while assisting authorities with investigation and prosecution of their traffickers; in some cases, this effectively served as a disincentive to victims coming forward and cooperating with authorities. In addition to threats of deportation, there are reports that victims of trafficking often do not wish to file official complaints to Singaporean authorities, due to the lack of adequate social, legal, and other support made available from authorities. The government reported that identified victims were generally given access to medical, counseling, and translation services, and were able to obtain work authorization while assisting with the prosecution of their traffickers; however, there were no known victims who were afforded this opportunity during the reporting period. When cases were being investigated or prosecuted, the government generally held the victims' passports and declined their requests for repatriation. Victims are legally entitled to pursue civil cases against their traffickers, and the government reported that it provides information on legal aid available from NGOs; however, the government did not provide financial resources to NGOs in order to provide legal assistance to victims, such as support to file civil suits against their traffickers. Domestic workers in Singapore, the vast majority of whom are foreigners, are excluded from the Employment Act, which specifies minimum terms and conditions of employment for rest days, hours of work, and other rights. This lack of legislation combined with the isolated workplace heightens the vulnerability of migrant domestic workers to trafficking. Many foreign workers face significant difficulties when attempting to seek redress for their problems, such as unpaid wages and wage deductions, which contribute to their vulnerability to trafficking. The MOM provides case workers to assist foreign workers who encounter problems in these areas. In addition, foreign fishermen on vessels that dock in Singapore have faced significant difficulties seeking redress when exploited, as Singaporean authorities believe that such trafficking crimes are committed outside the scope of the country's labor laws.

Prevention

The government demonstrated limited efforts to prevent trafficking in persons during the year. Although the government took some steps to prevent conditions of forced labor, the government did not conduct any anti-trafficking public awareness campaigns or make public any information concerning the extent of the problem. In March 2011, the government established an Inter-Agency Task Force on Human Trafficking. The government did not sponsor or conduct any research or assessment of the problem of human trafficking in Singapore during the reporting period; authorities reportedly delayed the publication of independent research conducted on sex trafficking in the country during the year. Authorities continued compulsory courses on employment rights and responsibilities for all incoming foreign domestic workers and their employers. The government provided foreign workers with written materials explaining their rights in their native languages and providing contact information for reporting complaints to labor authorities, and warned employers that it is an offense to confiscate any of these materials. In 2010, the MOM "sternly warned" 24 employment agencies and revoked the licenses of three agencies for withholding passports of foreign workers, but authorities did not investigate these agencies for potential involvement in forced labor. The MOM also investigated five cases of fraudulent recruitment that resulted in perpetrators sentenced to three to 10 months' imprisonment. The MOM trained NGO workers on Singaporean labor law to assist them in answering calls to 24-hour hotlines. During the year, the government instituted a new cap on fees for foreign workers coming to work in Singapore, though NGOs and the government acknowledged difficulties in enforcing this cap on source-country labor recruiters who often charge Singapore-bound migrants excessive fees that become debt. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts in Singapore's commercial sex industry. Government-linked Singapore media reported on trafficking conferences held at universities. The government continued to partner with an NGO to distribute hotline information to encourage reporting of child sex tourists to the Singaporean police at Singapore's major public travel fair, but it did not have a means to verify whether the campaign generated any leads. Although Singaporean law provides for extraterritorial jurisdiction over Singaporean citizens and permanent residents who sexually exploit children in other countries, the government has never investigated, prosecuted, or convicted a national or permanent resident for child sex tourism. There were no reports of Singaporeans engaging in child sex tourism during 2010. Singapore is not party to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

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