From migrant fishermen made to work under inhumane conditions, to women lured to Singapore by promises of good pay but forced into prostitution, the new Prevention of Human Trafficking Act will go a long way to protecting such victims.
Several of the Members of Parliament who debated the Bill related tragic stories to stress the point that modern Singapore is no stranger to the scourge.
Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC) told of a Bangladeshi sex worker who ended up servicing 10 men on weekdays and up to 45 on weekends, from 2pm to 6am. And of a young woman with a good singing voice who came here for a stint as an entertainer to provide a better future for her disabled son, but was stripped and confined in a cold room until she agreed to prostitute herself.
"Even as I relate all these cases to you, I feel this emptiness in my gut," he told the House.
The man behind the Bill, Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland- Bukit Timah GRC) also talked about a chef who was offered work here but, once in Singapore, was told she owed a debt to the man who arranged her entry and needed to prostitute herself to pay it back.
She refused and was beaten before she escaped.
All seven MPs who spoke on the Bill, from both sides of the House, said it was timely, given Singapore's vulnerability to human trafficking as a destination country due to its economic stature and strategic location.
Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said the Bill "speaks to our intent to rise above pragmatism and address what is morally right".
Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam called it a "long-overdue legislation".
Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris- Punggol GRC) said that the new law will "bring much needed relief" to migrant fishermen, who are vulnerable to labour trafficking through this country.
He said: "Conditions on board the vessels were squalid and unsanitary, but as the vessels were mostly out at sea, escape was virtually impossible..."
As for calls to make the Bill more "victim-centric", such as mandating the right to work while cases are being investigated, Mr Zainal said that it could encourage false claims.
Instead, he said the tailored approach in the Bill was the right one.
Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli and Senior Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor also assured the House that victims' welfare will be looked after thoroughly.
Their ministries co-chaired the Singapore Inter-agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons, established in 2010.
Mr Masagos stressed that the safety of victims is key, and that police and the Attorney- General's Chambers will fast- track cases.
Victims will be given access to shelter, consular support, English lessons and vocational training, for instance.
Dr Khor said victims from non-traditional source countries who are not eligible for a work permit in the service and manufacturing sectors would be offered employment in shelters.
Mr de Souza added that instead of "hard-coding" measures, allowing the government agencies to make a thorough assessment of each victim's needs will "ensure we have a victim-care regime that is robust, flexible and fair".
NEW ACT IS NECESSARY, BUT MPs HAVE SOME CONCERNS
I wonder if the penalties are harsh enough. This is modern-day slavery but it is also a very lucrative criminal business...Will the penalties be sufficient to have that deterrent effect in terms of the criminal business nature of this crime?
- Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC)
Where the trafficked victim is a child...the sentence ought to be harsher than that proposed. A child who is trafficked is much more vulnerable and likely to have trusted a significant adult in their life, only to have that trust betrayed.
- Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC)
We will need to improve our work at immigration by training our officers to identify the signs of human trafficking and perhaps develop specialist teams to directly combat organised immigration crime. We should also enhance our ability to act early and help other countries deal with the issue at source, before it reaches Singapore's shores.
- Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC)
The provisions for victim protection and assistance in the Bill need to be strengthened further...(It) would encourage more trafficking victims to come forward to report their plight to the authorities.
- Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam
It is important that migrants who have been trafficked not be prosecuted for being an undocumented immigrant, for working illegally or violating work pass regulations...(they) may have been deceived or coerced into committing such offences.
- Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam
Key aspects of the new legislation
- For the first time, there is a law against human trafficking involving sexual exploitation, forced labour or organ removal.
- It is trans-national in nature, which means only part of the offence needs to be committed in Singapore. Those who facilitate the offence or profit from it will also fall foul of the law.
- The Act is gender-neutral, and defines a child as a person under 18. Exploiting a child will be considered an aggravating factor in sentencing.
- First-time offenders face up to 10 years in jail, a maximum fine of $100,000, plus the possibility of up to six strokes of the cane.
- Repeat offenders face up to 15 years in prison, a fine of up to $150,000, with mandatory caning of up to nine strokes.
- A person suspected of trafficking can be arrested without a warrant.
- Informers will be protected from civil or criminal proceedings relating to evidence given.
- Victims will be provided with temporary shelter and counselling.
This article was first published on Nov 4, 2014.
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