Singapore is a destination country for men, women, and girls from China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Some foreign women are recruited through offers of legitimate employment and deceived about the nature or conditions of the prospective work in Singapore. Others 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. Child sex trafficking occurs in Singapore.
There are over 1.1 million foreign workers in Singapore, comprising more than one-third of Singapore’s total labor force. The majority are unskilled and low-skilled workers employed in construction, domestic service, and the hospitality and service industries. Many foreign workers in Singapore have assumed debts associated with their employment to recruitment agencies in both Singapore and their home countries, making the workers vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage. Foreign workers also reported confiscation of their passports, restrictions on their movement, illegal withholding of their pay, threats of forced repatriation without pay, and physical and sexual abuse—all indicators of potential trafficking. There were reports of men subjected to forced labor on long-haul fishing boats that dock in Southeast Asian ports, including Singapore, with foreign seamen reporting severe abuse by fishing boat captains, the inability to disembark from their vessels, the inability to terminate their contracts, and the nonpayment of wages.
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 authorities. A 2010 NGO study reported that Indian, Bangladeshi, and Chinese migrant workers in Singapore paid fees to employment agencies that constitute on average at least 10 months of their potential earnings; such debt makes migrants very 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 in source countries, commissions paid to Singaporean agencies, and, sometimes, kickbacks to Singaporean employers. To hide illegal fees, some agencies and employers reportedly mask them as payments from the worker for personal loans or as other payments, making it difficult for workers to understand how their wages were calculated and leaving them vulnerable to debt bondage. 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. Additionally, low-skilled workers are prohibited or severely restricted from seeking alternative employment or changing employers, and unscrupulous Singaporean employers could submit unfounded complaints about workers to encourage the government to place employment bans on them.
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. In November 2012, following consultations with NGOs involved in anti-trafficking activities, the government enacted amendments to its Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA); these amendments strengthened protections for foreign workers by increasing penalties prescribed for employers who unlawfully pass on employment costs to their workers, making them vulnerable to debt bondage. During the year, the interagency taskforce improved its overall coordination and referral mechanisms and continued to examine referrals of suspected sex and labor trafficking cases, but the lack of a legal definition of trafficking undermined the government’s ability to positively identify and prosecute cases, particularly in cases where victims willingly migrated to Singapore.
The government investigated more than 400 leads, yet it substantiated only 21 trafficking cases during the year; the lack of a law defining trafficking in accordance with international standards and inadequate capacity in interviewing victims thwarted law enforcement successes and left many victims without access to full government protections, including work permits or change of employer. The government identified 15 employment agencies engaged in the confiscation of workers’ travel documents, considered by the UN to be a key indicator of human trafficking, but only issued advisories to the agencies, instead of applying stringent penalties that would serve as an adequate deterrent. By allowing labor trafficking victims to work in Singapore while participating in prosecutions, the government increased the number of victims receiving benefits; however, it failed to address systematic barriers that left victims unwilling to participate, such as lengthy trials and fears of deportation. For the first time, the government allocated a budget specifically for anti-trafficking activities in the equivalent of approximately $4.4 million for the period 2012-2015.
Recommendations for Singapore: Strengthen investigations, prosecutions, convictions, and punishments of both sex and labor trafficking offenders; draft and enact legislation to prohibit all forms of trafficking, apply stringent penalties to all convicted offenders, ensure consistency in interpretation and application across government agencies, and legally mandate a victim-centered approach; use existing laws to 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; consider ways to expedite trafficking prosecutions; use multi-disciplinary groups, including victim service organizations or social workers during victim-screening interviews; continue to increase training for front-line officers in the identification of sex and labor trafficking and for investigators in building cases, with a focus on identifying non-physical forms of coercion; provide funding to all non-governmental shelters providing protections to trafficking victims; ensure all victims receive adequate protections regardless of whether their cases lead to prosecution; ensure anti-trafficking efforts consistently employ a victim-centered approach, particularly with regard to child sex trafficking; continue and expand support to victims assisting in investigation in obtaining employment; extend the government’s legal aid scheme to cover foreign trafficking victims to ensure all employees have equal access to judicial redress; continue and expand meaningful cooperation with civil society organizations, particularly in victim protection and support; and accede to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.
The Government of Singapore demonstrated limited efforts to prosecute trafficking in persons-related cases during the year but increased efforts to apply stringent penalties to convicted sex trafficking offenders. Singaporean law prohibits some forms of trafficking through its penal code and Women’s Charter. Singaporean law does not prohibit the forced prostitution of men, though there is no evidence of this occurring in Singapore. Article 140 of the Women’s Charter prohibits forced prostitution involving detention or physical force, though it does not include non-physical forms of coercion, such as debt bondage or threat of abuse of the legal process. Article 141 only prohibits the movement of women and girls for “trafficking” but 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. The fact that the criminal code does not define trafficking in a manner that conforms to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol continued to limit the government’s ability to prosecute trafficking cases, particularly in those where the victim initially consented to migrate to Singapore for work in a specific sector. During the year, the government obtained one conviction for child sex trafficking, compared with four convictions during the previous year. Child sex trafficking is not defined in Singaporean law, with the result that authorities classify all prosecutions related to commercial sex with children as trafficking cases in official statistics. The government demonstrated increased efforts to apply stringent penalties to convicted sex trafficking offenders; the offender convicted during the year was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. An offender convicted in a high-profile case during the previous reporting year was sentenced to 58 months’ imprisonment and a fine. An additional 16 cases confirmed to constitute sex trafficking were identified, and the prosecutions were ongoing at the close of the year. The government failed, however, to hold labor traffickers criminally accountable; one confirmed labor trafficking case was not prosecuted but instead closed with a stern warning and another remained under investigation at the close of the reporting period. The government has never prosecuted or convicted a labor trafficking offender.
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. During the year, the taskforce assumed a coordinating role for suspected labor trafficking cases. Authorities identified the majority of sex trafficking cases during anti-prostitution operations. Officials continued to face challenges in identifying and building evidence in labor trafficking cases; authorities were not well trained to identify non-physical forms of coercion, which are not defined in Singaporean law, and authorities may have failed to recognize the elements of labor trafficking among workers who reportedly migrated to Singapore willingly. The Government of Singapore maintains that it does not have jurisdiction over foreign fishermen working in offshore waters on vessels that are not Singapore-flagged, even if these vessels dock in Singapore; it did not report any prosecutions or convictions of suspected human trafficking on fishing vessels or efforts to assist victims of this form of exploitation during the year. The Government of Singapore investigated allegations of Singapore-based employment agencies recruiting and housing fishermen who later reported labor exploitation but reported it did not uncover a criminal act that could be prosecuted in Singapore. A former police superintendent and a military officer were convicted for the commercial sexual exploitation of a child and received sentences between nine and 12 weeks’ imprisonment.
The government made moderate progress in identifying and protecting trafficking victims during the year, but it provided services to fewer victims than in the previous year. The government reported that it provided funding to 22 shelters serving vulnerable children and four shelters serving adults; however, it did not operate any trafficking-specific shelters. Trafficking victims in government-supported shelters received medical, psychological, and translation services. As in previous years, most victims were housed in NGO facilities or shelters maintained by foreign embassies. In a positive step, the government allocated the equivalent of approximately $4.4 million to anti-trafficking activities for the period of 2012-2015; it is unknown what portion of this funding will be used to augment existing social services with specific protections for trafficking victims. Government funding for shelter and social services for crime victims increased from the equivalent of approximately $1.6 million in 2011 to the equivalent of approximately $2.6 million in 2012; however, the government did not dedicate exclusive resources to protecting trafficking victims. The government developed a series of standard operating procedures to guide police and labor officials in identifying labor and sex trafficking victims and referring them to service providers, though it did not report the extent to which it trained relevant officials on these new procedures during the year. The interagency taskforce served as a point of contact for referrals from NGOs, law enforcement officers, and the embassies of victims’ home countries. NGOs and foreign embassies reported that after referring a case to the taskforce, they were not given updates on the status of cases; this lack of transparency regarding ongoing cases interfered with service providers’ ability to assist victims. The government did not report the total number of suspected or confirmed victims identified during the year, but it investigated 350 cases of suspected labor trafficking and 52 cases of suspected sex trafficking; approximately 29 sex trafficking victims were referred by foreign embassies, including eight Singaporeans. The government reported 19 sex trafficking victims and nine labor trafficking victims received accommodation from government-supported facilities; victims whose cases did not result in prosecution were repatriated within two to four weeks. Authorities continued to utilize sex trafficking indicator cards to identify victims during operations; however, victims’ fears of detention or deportation may have made them reluctant to communicate with law enforcement officers. The government did not ensure that social service professionals were present during screening interviews, which may have hampered the success of victim identification efforts and caused further trauma to victims. An increased number of child sex trafficking referrals from police during the year may be evidence of an improved awareness among police officers of this form of trafficking. The government did not ensure, however, that child victims’ rights were protected; during the year, media outlets at times published the names and photos of these victims. Some MOM officers, police officers, and immigration officials utilized the labor trafficking indicator card developed in the previous reporting period, though it has not yet been deployed to all front-line officials. According to NGOs and foreign embassies, inadequate victim identification resulted in the possibility that trafficking victims were among the approximately 5,300 individuals arrested for prostitution violations during the year; such individuals may have been subjected to penalties.
The government did not provide incentives such as legal aid for the pursuit of civil suits or specialized protection services to foreign victims to participate voluntarily in investigations and prosecutions of trafficking offenses. Victims considered key witnesses were requested by the government to remain in Singapore and participate in court proceedings. Lengthy investigations and prosecutions—often six to 12 months—posed a disincentive for victims to participate. An unknown number of victims received special passes that allowed them to stay legally in Singapore for a temporary period. The requirement to be a prosecution witness placed an undue burden on victims, particularly when the victim was not granted permits to work. The MOM reported that 28 suspected labor trafficking victims who assisted the government as prosecution witnesses received authorization to work temporarily in Singapore and 33 were granted the ability to change employers, which is typically not permitted without an employer’s consent. Victims with work permits could choose to reside outside shelters during court proceedings. There were reports that victims of trafficking often did not wish to file official complaints with Singaporean authorities. In addition, NGOs reported that some victims were confined to shelters and unable to leave without government permission and that some victims were required to remain in the country to participate in court proceedings. NGOs and foreign embassies reported difficulty obtaining information about victims in the government’s custody. Domestic workers in Singapore, the vast majority of whom are foreigners, remained excluded from the employment act, which includes a number of basic worker protections. Fishermen faced significant difficulties when attempting to seek redress for their problems; they were not eligible under Singaporean law to file for compensation or nonpayment of salary disputes in Singapore. The government contributed funding to an NGO to establish a drop-in center for distressed fishermen but did not offer further assistance to these workers; rather, the purpose of the center is to provide an avenue for workers to contact their embassies or NGOs for assistance.
The government increased efforts to educate foreign workers on their employment rights in Singapore and engaged NGOs and universities to raise awareness of trafficking among the general public. However, the government’s campaigns against illegal immigration may have led to the conflation of trafficking and smuggling. Awareness of anti-trafficking policies remained low among the public and government officials. The government’s interagency taskforce continued implementation of Singapore’s national action plan for combating trafficking. Although it held a meeting with civil society stakeholders in January 2013 and accepted case referrals from NGOs throughout the year, it did not typically consult with NGOs for their expertise or share information on an ongoing basis. In January 2013, the government announced a grant of the equivalent of approximately $64,000 for matching funds to individuals or organizations to raise awareness of human trafficking, and it allocated the equivalent of approximately $160,000 for three research projects on the scope of trafficking in Singapore, the experiences of sex trafficking victims, and international best practices for combating trafficking. During the year, the MOM responded to 35 complaints from foreign workers who allegedly had their passports confiscated by employers or labor brokers; 15 employment agencies confirmed to be withholding passports were issued warnings and received demerit points, but the agencies or their representatives were not prosecuted for acts of trafficking. Two convictions of employers, resulting in fines, for nonpayment of salary were highly publicized. During the year, the government enacted amendments to the EFMA which included penalties for employers who pass employment costs on to workers in excess of the legal limit. Twenty-nine employers were convicted of failing to pay wages of foreign workers and received sentences ranging from fines to 20 weeks’ imprisonment, and an employment agent was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment under the EFMA for charges related to fraudulent recruitment. The government maintained a dedicated help line for foreign domestic workers in distress, but the government did not report whether this line received any trafficking-related calls during the year. The government published advertisements in Bangladeshi and Filipino publications providing contact information for reporting nonpayment of wages or forced repatriation to labor authorities. The government distributed a pamphlet and published messages in an industry bulletin explaining to employers the requirement—effective January 2013—to grant domestic workers one rest day per week. Police and MOM inspectors reported receiving 350 cases of potential labor trafficking; however, the government could only substantiate two trafficking cases in 2012. Immigration officials referred 17 cases of involuntary repatriation to MOM; none of these cases were subsequently determined to constitute trafficking. Authorities continued compulsory courses on employment rights and responsibilities for all incoming foreign domestic workers and their employers, and during the year the government conducted pre-departure briefings for 2,500 workers in three labor-source countries; however, these briefings did not explicitly include information about the dangers of trafficking. The government reported investigating 70 trafficking-related labor cases and 29 prostitution cases, classified as “substantiated cases with some trafficking in persons elements,” but the majority of the labor cases were dismissed with no penalties or further action. One individual was convicted of trafficking-related labor violations and sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment and a fine; in addition, two prosecutions are ongoing, two convictions are pending sentencing, and 12 cases remain under investigation. Twenty-one individuals received sentences ranging from nine weeks to four months’ imprisonment for the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Singapore. The government made limited efforts to reduce the demand for forced labor or for commercial sex. 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 Singaporean national or permanent resident for child sex tourism. There were no reports of Singaporeans engaging in child sex tourism abroad during 2012. Singapore is not a party to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.