Landmark law against human trafficking passed after debate

A landmark law to fight human trafficking was passed yesterday, but not before a 2½-hour debate on whether it went far enough to protect victims of modern-day slavery and deter offenders.

Still, the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act was lauded as timely and necessary by all seven MPs who spoke on it. They praised backbencher Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) for initiating the Private Member's Bill - only the fourth of its kind since independence.

"The intention is that this (law) will dismantle syndicates and prevent the exploitation of innocent women, men, girls and boys," said Mr de Souza.

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, with repeat offenders facing heavier punishments.

But several MPs questioned whether it will serve as enough of a deterrent. Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said that a recently passed law to clamp down on online betting included fines of as much as $300,000 to $500,000, and that he backed calls for harsher penalties.

Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam highlighted that in California, human trafficking carries a fine of up to US$1.5 million (S$1.93 million) and a jail term of 15 years to life. Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) also called for stiffer penalties when victims are children.

But Mr de Souza said the penalties were benchmarked against those of similar crimes here and in overseas jurisdictions, such as Hong Kong, where sex trafficking-related offences carry a maximum of 10 years' jail.

Several MPs also said the Act did not go far enough in legislating for the victims' welfare, including immunity from prosecutions and the right to work while cases were being investigated.

Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC), calling for the Bill to be "humanised", said: "There are 11 sections... in relation to enforcement and yet only two sections... for victim protection and assistance." The two sections provide for counselling and shelter for victims.

In the lead-up to yesterday's debate, several non-government organisations criticised the Bill for falling short on victim care. But by making the Bill more "victim- centric", such as mandating the right to work, labour MP Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said that could open "a Pandora's box with many coming forward to make false claims in the hope of finding alternative employment".

Instead, he stressed the "need to assess each case on its facts and merits, followed with the exercise of discretion and empathy, as opposed to preferring a 'one-size- fits-all' approach" when it comes to the treatment of victims.

Mr de Souza said he understood the members' concerns but "one should not look at simple arithmetic to see how much or how many parts of the Bill are allocated to victim enforcement, prevention and so on".

What is important is that the law "protects the most vulnerable of the vulnerable - the innocent who often do not have a voice, and who are caught in a merciless web of exploitation".

This article was first published on Nov 4, 2014.
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