Protecting victims’ rights the key to human trafficking Bill’s success: Activists

The Bill in its current form is “prosecution and prevention-centric” and does not take into account the rights of trafficking victims, campaigners said on the sidelines of the StopTraffickingSG Campaign press conference.

By Monica Kotwani
POSTED: 21 Oct 2014 15:26
UPDATED: 21 Oct 2014 23:32

SINGAPORE: The number of human trafficking victims in Singapore reporting their cases could rise initially if the proposed Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill is passed without amendment. However, activists from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on Tuesday (Oct 21) said this scenario will be short-lived if their cases are not dealt with comprehensively.

While the traditional notion of a human trafficking victim is a woman coerced into the sex trade, many migrant workers and foreign domestic workers that come to the attention of NGOs are also victims of human trafficking. To encourage them to come forward, the NGOs said it is important that they know they will receive adequate protection and assistance.

The proposed Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill provides for medical care, counselling sessions, shelter and even the protection of victims from public scrutiny. But a group of activists said the Bill does not include other forms of protection, such as the right to employment while investigations are ongoing.

The Bill as it stands is “prosecution and prevention-centric” and does not take into account the rights of trafficking victims, campaigners said on the sidelines of the StopTraffickingSG Campaign press conference held on Tuesday morning.

Preserving victims’ rights and ensuring their welfare are key in the fight against human trafficking, but cannot be done if, for example, victims are not employed while their cases are being investigated.

The campaign is a joint initiative of NGOs including equality advocacy group AWARE, human rights group Maruah, and migrant worker advocacy groups HOME and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

Said head of HOME Mr Jolovan Wham: “Whenever we talk to migrant workers and trafficked migrants, and whenever we try to encourage them to file complaints, one of the first things they ask us is: ‘Will I be able to switch employers or remain in Singapore to work?’

“This is the main reason they have left their countries in the first place. If we are not able to meet this primary motivation of leaving their countries, we will not be able to get the trafficked victims’ cooperation to stay behind for investigations – and investigations take a really long time.”

Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Christopher de Souza, who tabled the Bill in Parliament in October, said the Bill is victim-centric. The victims’ rights section in the Bill had been deliberately left “non-exhaustive”, he said, and adding another right to the Bill – in this case the right to work – may not be helpful to all.

“The people with whom I have spoken – ladies who unfortunately would come under the ambit of sexual trafficking – they did not want to work. That is one of the reasons why not putting in a one-size-fits-all right for everybody is useful,” he said. “To accord the officers who are administering the care and concern and also investigation to decide what is best, that does not necessarily have to be coded into the law.”


Campaigners also raised some issues of unclear definitions within the Bill. Mr Wham said that deception is one of the key indicators of trafficking, but this is not defined in the Bill. His definition includes being deceived on the nature of work, working conditions or promised days off.

He also said there is no clear definition of the term “forced labour”, even though it appears in the Bill. Without a proper definition, it could be interpreted to mean being physically restrained and forced to work.

An international definition of the word, he suggested, would include extracting work from an individual under the means of penalty – be it through psychological means, physical abuse or violence.

But Mr de Souza said definitions set out in the Bill are consistent with the United Nations’ Trafficking in Persons Protocol, and these have been adopted by many other countries. Where certain words are defined in the Bill, the judge is given the flexibility to determine a standard of proof, he said.

While these concerns are not new, and have been provided for in the Bill where possible, he will consider and raise them in his speech during the second reading in November, he added.

TWC2’s head of the Research Sub-Committee, Mr John Gee, said his organisation deals with about 3,000 migrant worker cases a year. Of these, about 20 could involve human trafficking.

He said most of the affected workers do not want to file complaints. Some cases may be reported, but he was not optimistic about their success if victims’ rights are not protected under the Bill.

Mr Gee said: “What would be very bad is if we find people coming forward feeling quite hopeful that their cases will be dealt with, but they are disappointed, and that becomes common knowledge. That may become a disincentive to actually coming forward to make a complaint.”

– CNA/xk/xy