Taking aim at human trafficking

Photo illustration.

SINGAPORE - For about a year, Erica Lazaro (not her real name), 23, was a dancer-cum-model in a Manila pub. On some nights, she danced sensually to English and Tagalog songs. On others, she was part of a fashion show so customers would stay and buy more drinks.

It was showtime rather than sleaze, and the money was good - the equivalent of $500 a month.

Still, like millions of her compatriots, she dreamed of working abroad to earn even more.

When a former colleague working in Singapore said the same job there paid at least double the money, she leapt at the chance.

Her friend introduced her to an employment agent who told her she would dance and serve drinks at a Singapore pub for a basic $800 a month. In addition, she would get half the money for all drinks she got customers to buy.

"They told me I could easily earn $1,000 or more each month."

But she would have to pay $3,800 in agent fees, including the airfare, to be deducted from her salary in instalments. This would take less than four months to pay.

What she insists she was not told then was that, unlike in Manila, she would also need to have paid sex with clients.

A performing artiste's work permit was processed quickly. In two weeks, she was on a plane to Changi Airport, traversing a well-worn migrant route and brimming with hope.

But within a day of arriving in late March 2012, Ms Lazaro was told that she had to sell $200 worth of drinks a night at the Arab Street pub where she worked. If she did not meet the "quota", she would be fined. She would also be fined if she gained weight, refused to wear a G-string or fell sick.

When she failed to sell enough drinks, her Singaporean boss began pressuring her to go out with clients and sell her body.

She says she refused initially and wanted to return home.

"But he said I could not leave without repaying my debts," the soft-spoken woman told Insight in an interview last week.

The way she tells it, her passport was confiscated and during the day, she was locked up in an apartment in the Marine Parade area with nine colleagues, and allowed only one meal a day.

Finally, Ms Lazaro gave in, and had paid sex with strangers.

"I had no choice," she says, adding that in five months of work, she did not get a single cent. Her employer kept all the money. "No one told me in Manila that my job would involve prostitution or that my debts would keep multiplying. Or I would never have come."

People like Ms Lazaro who were deceived or forced into labour or the sex trade here will soon get more protection under a proposed Private Member's Bill against human trafficking.

Public consultations on what the law should include began here this week and will continue until April 18.

The Bill is being proposed by Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza and is backed by the Government.

Need for a single law

Human trafficking occurs when vulnerable men, women and children are forced, tricked or coerced into commercial sex or servitude, in cities or countries other than where they grew up. It is a significant transnational crime.

"We need a standalone law to plant a legal flag that human trafficking is a serious crime and will not be condoned in Singapore," says Mr de Souza.

Singapore already has legal provisions against some elements of human trafficking, but these are spread across disparate laws, he points out.

The Women's Charter, for instance, outlaws trafficking of women for sexual exploitation, and the Children's and Young Person's Act does the same for children. Some elements of what could be construed as labour trafficking, on the other hand, are captured under the Penal Code and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.

However, "a single, dedicated law to combat human trafficking will be more effective and easier to enforce", says Mr de Souza, who has been speaking in Parliament on the subject since 2008.

He notes that Singapore already has a precedent in the Misuse of Drugs Act, a standalone law against drug trafficking.

Mr de Souza, who was once a government lawyer who worked on sex trafficking cases, has drawn up an initial draft.

The planned law will make sex trafficking an offence and also forbid forced labour and organ trafficking. It is meant to serve as a deterrent, with penalties adequately reflecting the severity of the offences. It will be gender neutral, and consent of a victim to cross borders or be exploited will not impede enforcement.

Traffickers who take victims through Singapore for the purpose of being exploited in another country would be prosecuted, as would Singaporeans who traffick migrants overseas.

Officials, academics and activists laud the Bill, but have plenty of suggestions on what it should include.

Ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, says that besides being a deterrent, the law should provide for enough shelters offering temporary accommodation for prosecution witnesses in trafficking cases.

It should also allow greater flexibility in job change for workpermit holders so ill-treated workers can find a new employer. Academic Sallie Yea wants clear sets of indicators on what constitutes trafficking. Indeed, the public consultation process will be useful in establishing how to define trafficking.

Craft it too loosely, and bad labour conditions or practices - such as asking a domestic worker to take compensation in lieu of even just one day off a month - might be misconstrued. Define it too tightly, and unscrupulous employers who systematically abuse, exploit and coerce workers could be let off the hook.

Mr de Souza is acutely aware of the need for the law to strike the right balance. "We don't want to understretch, but at the same time, we don't want to promise something we cannot deliver," he says.

Lack of data

There are no official figures on how many migrant workers are trafficked into Singapore.

The authorities investigated 53 reports of sex trafficking last year. Five led to prosecution. Another 49 reports with elements of labour trafficking were also investigated here in the same period.

Most investigations are ongoing.

In one horrifying case, a 17-year-old from China was beaten and drugged before being brought here to work as a prostitute last May and made to serve 150 clients in 15 days. Her pimp was sentenced to six years in jail.

Dr Yea, who has been researching human trafficking in Singapore since 2009, believes the official numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

The assistant professor from the National Institute of Education has conducted in-depth interviews with around 130 migrant women from the Philippines and Indonesia who worked in the nightlife entertainment and commercial sex industry here.

More than three in four of these women, she says, were trafficked. Many had run away and sought help from embassies and non-profit organisations. Yet, fewer than 10 reported the crime to the Singapore authorities, largely because they feared they could face charges for visa violations.

While prostitution is not a crime in Singapore, foreigners are prohibited from working in the commercial sex industry.

Most of the Filipinas interviewed by Dr Yea were single mothers with at least a high school diploma and had been promised work as waitresses, domestic helpers or retail assistants, only to find, once arriving here, that the job involved paid sex.

The Indonesians were mostly childless, single and less educated.

Many had been deceived or sold into the thriving sex trade in Batam and, ground down by their plight, then moved here voluntarily to work in the sex industry.

Dr Yea highlights a need for more data to help achieve more convictions for human trafficking. She says: "Right now, there is not enough evidence that much of that is happening."

Low penalties for trafficking offences here is another issue that the new law needs to rectify, say activists. Under the Women's Charter, the maximum prison term for trafficking a woman or a girl is five years.

In a high-profile case last December, a pub owner who arranged for 26 Filipinas to offer clients sexual services was jailed 18 months and fined $3,000.

In the United States, some penalties for sex trafficking range from a mandatory minimum of 10 years in jail to life imprisonment.

Tending to the victims

Any new law, to be effective, must also enable quick resolution of cases, say activists and embassy officials.

The process of investigating cases and prosecuting traffickers can drag on for a year or more, points out Third Secretary and Vice-Consul Oliver C. Delfin from the Philippine Embassy.

Victims who are often prosecution witnesses are required to remain in Singapore during this time. "This is difficult for victims as most are eager to return home after their ordeal," says Mr Delfin, whose work involves assisting Filipina victims of sex trafficking.

The Inter-agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons, the government body to fight trafficking here, says it is looking at ways to shorten the timeline and strengthen the investigation processes for trafficking cases.

Take Ms Lazaro. She has been here for more than 18 months since she was caught in a raid in August 2012. One of her bosses has already been convicted, but his partner is missing.

She says that although she is here to help the Singapore authorities prosecute a trafficker, she is being financially supported by a friend, and not any government organisation. She lives with the friend and her family.

Indeed, the new law must take a "victim-centred" approach to be effective, say activists such as executive director Jolovan Wham of Home, an anti-trafficking organisation. "Without protection and support, victims will be unwilling to report their cases and the new law will fail to serve as an effective tool of prosecution and deterrence," says Mr Wham.

Places such as Taiwan and the US already offer much of this.

In Taiwan, which passed a dedicated law to fight human trafficking in 2009, victims are required to be given access to jobs, counselling, accommodation, legal aid and vocational training. Those who cannot work are even given a stipend. Social workers accompany victims to court. The US also has similar provisions, all funded by the federal government.

Singapore, too, has a scheme which enables migrants to work while their former employers are being investigated for trafficking or other offences. But the Ministry of Manpower's Temporary Job Scheme has limitations that the new law needs to address, says Mr Wham.

For instance, while all victims can apply for work permits under the scheme, employers can only hire citizens from "approved source countries". So Vietnamese trafficking victims, for instance, cannot work while cases are being investigated because Vietnam is not an approved source for hiring work-permit holders.

Mr Delfin is among those who would like to see officers better trained to chase leads on their own, instead of putting the full weight of prosecution on vulnerable victims. And Dr Yea says the biggest challenge is not the trafficking law, but how to "enable active enforcement". "It doesn't matter how good the law is if conviction rates remain low and there is no respect for the victims it is meant to protect," she says.

"That's what we need to focus on - and change."

Mr de Souza, for his part, promises that the law will aim to quickly detect and punish the guilty and protect the innocent. "But above all, it must be enforceable," stresses Mr de Souza.

"This is not going to be just an academic piece of legislation we can put on the shelf."


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