'Progress made' to fight trafficking

'Progress made' to fight trafficking

Singapore has made significant progress to combat human trafficking and is working to improve further, a government taskforce said yesterday.

The Singapore Inter-agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons was responding to criticism from the United States that not enough is being done, especially against labour trafficking.

The taskforce said it is helping Mr Christopher de Souza, a Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, on a Private Member's Bill against human trafficking, expected to be tabled in Parliament this year.

This would "empower agencies with the necessary powers and levers to deal with trafficking in persons more effectively", said the taskforce, which is spearheaded by the Home Affairs and Manpower ministries.

Singapore does not have dedicated laws against human trafficking, but outlaws sex trafficking of women and children through other legislation.

The annual Trafficking In Persons report, released by the US government last Friday, placed Singapore in Tier 2 of its four-tier ranking for the fourth year. This means Singapore has not fully complied with minimum standards to curb trafficking, but has made significant strides.

It said that while Singapore has improved in areas such as case referrals and criminal prosecution records, it remains a "destination country" for adults and girls from at least nine Asian countries being trafficked as sex workers or forced labour. It criticised the Government's "modest" efforts, where victims are protected on a case-by-case basis.

While those identified are not punished for crimes committed due to being trafficked - 42 victims were allowed to change employers and six acting as prosecution witnesses were granted temporary work permits - inadequate identification means some may have slipped through the cracks.

It noted there were disagreements on what amounted to trafficking. Only 93 cases, involving 228 victims, were determined to be trafficking, though human rights groups had flagged 867 cases involving an unknown number of victims.

The report also noted that the hefty debts low-wage workers incur to work in Singapore make them vulnerable to forced labour as they try to clear their debts.

"Foreign workers have credible fears of losing their work visas and being deported, since employers have the ability to repatriate workers at any time during their contracts with minimal notice," the report said. "Low-skilled workers face restrictions in seeking alternative employment or changing employers, and unscrupulous Singaporean employers can submit unfounded complaints about workers and encourage the Government to place employment bans on them.

"Some employers in Singapore have relied on repatriation companies to seize, confine, and escort foreign workers to the airport for departure from Singapore, including through the use of assaults, threats and coercion to prevent them from complaining about abuses to the authorities."

The US urged Singapore to enact laws to ban all forms of trafficking, increase specialised training for front-line officers and foster closer coordination with civil society groups.

The Singapore taskforce said it will study the report in detail. While it welcomed US efforts to highlight an important global issue, it called for a "more objective methodology... (to) ensure that a consistent, transparent, and measurable standard is applied to all countries".

Mr de Souza told The Sunday Times: "Even one case of human trafficking in Singapore is one case too many. With this in mind, the intention behind the Bill is to take into account the views of agencies, voluntary welfare groups and like-minded citizens to protect the vulnerable who have been trafficked and stamp out this evil practice."

This article was first published on June 23, 2014.
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