SINGAPORE – This city-state has begun a month-long consultation to secure feedback from stakeholders on an omnibus bill to curb trafficking-in-persons (TIP), which has seen women from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and China lured by the promise of higher wages, but end up having to do paid sex.
Consultations started March 19, and to last April 18, the government said on its site. It comes on the heels of efforts by countries such as the Philippines to tighten the noose on citizens leaving its borders in the pretense of being a tourist.
The effort could be a boon for offices such as the Philippine embassy in Singapore, which receives about one case a week of a Filipino finding herself with problems of unpaid salaries from a job they did not sign up for, or did not know would have to perform when they were being recruited to leave the Philippines to come here.
By the time the Filipino approaches the embassy, she may have obtained debts from her expenses traveling to Singapore, compounded by the employer’s failure to pay salaries.
First Secretary and Consul Victorio Mario Dimagiba of the Philippine embassy in Singapore said many of the Filipinos who seek help would rather settle the matter silently.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, ayaw ipaalam. Ide-deport kasi (Ninety-five percent of the time, they would not want to expose themselves. They may get deported),” Dimagiba said.
These likely involve those who have come to Singapore holding a performing artist’s work permit – something the Philippines’ labor department does not recognize, Dimagiba said.
The closest to a “performing artist’s work permit” the Philippine government issues are those for the overseas performing artists (OPA) bound for Japan and Korea. OPAs are made to pass an audition and secure an artist record book if there are specific jobs waiting for the artists.
There are about 160,000 Filipinos mostly working in the professional and services sectors of restaurants, IT and banking in Singapore. Forty percent or less are into household services. There are 20,000 more Filipinos in the city-state who are undocumented, according to the embassy official.
‘Cases in Orchard, Changi’
Dimagiba acknowledges there are Filipinos who have had run-ins with traffickers or have been victimized. He said there have been cases in the Orchard Road – a major shopping district -- and Changi at the eastern side.
Many of the trafficking-in-persons cases reported by media and academics who have done research work on the matter here involved women holding performing artists’ work permits and forced into paid sex by debt from the cost of going to Singapore, foreign worker levy, and boarding costs.
There are no official numbers on how many workers are trafficked into Singapore – whether as the final destination for sex workers in a pub, or as a transshipment point going to other countries. Yet, the problem is one that has prompted local authorities to act.
The anti-trafficking bill – formally called Private Member’s Bill on the Prevention of Human Trafficking here -- was initiated by Christopher de Souza, Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, and the Singapore Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking-in-Persons.
The proposal’s main intent is to be the “dedicated piece of legislation to criminalize trafficking-in-persons for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labor and exploitation by the removal of organs. It would also provide the authorities with suitable levers to deal with the TIP issue,” the government site said.
Consultations have been rolled out for key stakeholders such as non-governmental organizations, voluntary welfare organizations, civil society organizations, businesses, students and academia.
Singapore as signatory to UN protocol vs trafficking
The trafficking-in-persons protocol to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime defines the act as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs... The consent of a victim of trafficking-in-persons to the intended exploitation set forth shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth have been used.”
Close to 150 countries have signed this protocol, Singapore not one of them, but has said “it will sign the treaty when domestic measures are put in place to adhere to it,” Singapore’s Straits Times reported Saturday.
“The dedicated trafficking law – which is expected to adhere to the UN definition – is being seen as a step in that direction,” the Times said.
What this bill will do if enacted
The dedicated law is seen consolidating under single legislation existing Singaporean laws that may address trafficking-related crimes but were largely enacted for different purposes and at different times, the government said in its explanation of the proposal on-site.
“They do not address TIP as a specific phenomenon. This can result in gaps and inconsistencies as to how we deal with TIP… Having dedicated legislation for the crime of TIP will allow us to have a holistic framework for TIP, adopt consistent definitions and penalties, and deal with TIP offences squarely,” the site said.
“Overall, the Bill is based on four key principles:
a. It serves as a deterrent piece of legislation. Penalties should adequately reflect the severity of trafficking offences.
b. It offers greater protection to victims and is gender neutral. Both men and women should be considered victims if in the same situation.
c. It ensures that the consent of the victim will not be an impediment to enforcement. Even if the victim agrees to being exploited, the perpetrator could still be taken to task if the elements of TIP are present.
d. It takes action against acts of trafficking that occur within Singapore (even if a trafficked person only transits through Singapore) and acts of trafficking perpetuated by Singaporeans overseas.”
(The author is an ABS-CBN journalist and currently a 2014 Fellow at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University) :)