“If I go back, my family die already, I also die already. How can I go back?”
So says 36-year-old Rahman Safiar, who came to Singapore to work for a construction company in December last year. Like many other migrant workers, he’d left Bangladesh in the hopes of earning a steady income in a strong currency so as to better support dependents back home. Now, he’s stuck in the Southeast Asian city-state with no money and a pile of debt.
Particular stereotypical images might spring to mind whenever the term ‘human trafficking’ comes up: images of girls or young women, tearful and restrained, appealing for someone, anyone, to save them as they are sold into prostitution. People expect frightened individuals huddled in the back of suspicious-looking trucks, beaten or abused as they are ferried from one place to another to work as modern-day slaves.
It’s what we think about when we hear the word ‘trafficking’, but the reality is often very different. Survivors or victims of trafficking don’t always look like skinny, wide-eyed girls kept in locked rooms. They sometimes look like Safiar: young, able-bodied men, free from physical restraint.
While still in Bangladesh, Safiar was told by a former colleague in Singapore that a job as a rigger signalman was available with a construction company. He then paid this colleague SGD5,000 to facilitate his recruitment, taking out a bank loan and leasing his family’s land to raise the amount. In return, he was promised a monthly salary of SGD1,600, as stated on an in-principle approval (IPA) that he was shown.
Upon arrival in Singapore, Safiar found that the terms had changed. When he went to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to complete the paperwork for his work permit, he was handed a notification stating that his employer had “informed MOM that your basic monthly salary has been reduced from SGD1,600 to SGD452.” The letter went on to say that the employer would have to get Safiar’s written consent to this change; if Safiar did not agree, then the original salary rate would stand. But Safiar says there were no re- negotiations and that he never received a contract.
When he started work, he was assigned to work in rebar, laying down the steel bars used to reinforce concrete in building work. It was a different role from that of a signalman, but having work was more important to Safiar, who still hoped to be paid the salary he’d been promised before coming to Singapore. But that, as it turned out, had also been too much to ask.
For the seven days of work that he’d done in December 2017, he was paid SGD116—out of which his employer took SGD50 to reclaim the money he had loaned Safiar for the bus fare to and from work. In January, the employer told Safiar that he would be paid at the lower monthly salary rate of SGD452. When Safiar disagreed and asked to be paid the salary he’d been promised, he was told that he would be paid later. He received no salary in January or February, after which he lodged a complaint with MOM.
Singapore’s construction industry will face a boom period over the next few years, according to the Building and Construction Authority.
Cases like Safiar’s aren’t the ones that would usually appear on anti-trafficking billboards and posters, but highlight how common myths of trafficking obscure the range of situations in which deception, exploitation and coercion occurs.
Under the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, also known as the Palermo Protocol, trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring 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.”
While many picture trafficking in terms of sex trafficking, the reality is that labour trafficking—where individuals are deceived into working under poor and exploitative conditions—tends to be far more common. According to the 2017 Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report by the United States State Department: “Some of the 1.4 million foreign workers that comprise approximately one-third of Singapore’s total labour force are vulnerable to trafficking.”
Another common myth is that physical restraint and force is required in human trafficking. Such misconceptions can have a serious impact, leading to damaging assumptions where individuals perceived as having consented to the job and consequent conditions are seen as people who “should have known better”, and therefore blamed for their own predicament.
There are ways to identify victims of trafficking: the Delphi method introduced by the International Labour Office and the European Commission provides sets of operational indicators intended to help with determining whether someone has been trafficked or not. An individual who fulfills the dimensions of deceptive recruitment, exploitation and coercion is deemed to have been trafficked.
Following this methodology, Safiar appears to fit the bill: he’d been deceived about the nature of the job and deceived about his wages, which fulfils the dimension of deceptive recruitment. The lack of a signed contract and the failure to pay his salary meets the requirements for exploitation, while the dimension of coercion is fulfilled by the fact that his employer had confiscated his passport and withheld his wages, while the money that he’d had to borrow to pay his recruitment fee kept him in debt bondage.
His case worker at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a local migrant rights organisation, told Esquire Singapore that he was thinking of referring Safiar’s case to the Singapore Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons, an inter-agency effort that involves not just MOM but also the police force, the immigration authority, the Attorney- General’s Chambers and a number of other government ministries. In the meantime, Safiar has been granted permission by MOM to find a new employer. It’s crucial that this job hunt goes well. “I cannot go back,” he says. “I owe so much money and I’ve leased my family’s land. If I go back, what will happen to my family and I?”
But such a referral might not be successful. While non-government organisations might rely on indicators as laid out in the Delphi methodology, it’s not clear that the official task force uses the same standards. Cases that HOME has referred to the task force have sometimes been deemed by the authorities as failing to fit the criteria of human trafficking. “Some of the problems [with trying to figure out if someone has been trafficked] will be trying to figure out how the [task force] operationalises indicators in the Singapore context,” says Stephanie Chok, casework manager and head of research at HOME. “We don’t know what indicators they use or how they operationalise terms like ‘deception’ or ‘debt bondage’. Our sense is that they probably set the benchmarks quite narrowly.”
Apart from the task force, which was set up in 2010, Singapore has taken other steps to deal with trafficking. In 2015, the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act was passed to grant enforcement powers to the authorities, provide harsh penalties for offenders and lay out some protections for trafficked persons. Under the Act, the punishment for a first offence of trafficking in persons is a jail term of up to 10 years with up to six strokes of the cane, as well as a fine of up to SGD100,000.
MOM is launching a mandatory Settling-in Programme (SIP) for new work permit holders in the second half of this year. The one-day course, which will be conducted in the workers’ native languages, is designed to equip them with knowledge of their rights and responsibilities.
According to the US State Department’s TIP report, the Singapore government prosecuted eight suspects— three for sex trafficking and five for labour trafficking— and convicted two for sex trafficking. Esquire Singaporeapproached the task force for comment; they sent basic information on Singapore’s response to trafficking along with links to information about the taskforce on the MOM website. They have yet to respond to specific questions about the indicators used.
Sometimes, possible victims of trafficking choose not to be identified as such. “We refer very few cases [to the task force] but that’s also because a lot of the migrant workers don’t want to be referred [to] as trafficking victims,” says Chok.
A reference to the task force could result in a lengthy investigation as the authorities probe their case. In the meantime, the individual is required to stay in the country. If they aren’t allowed or able to find other work, that could mean a long period of unemployment, incurring expenses with no income to remit home. “If they have a salary claim, there may not be an advantage of being considered a trafficking victim,” Chok explains. “If they want to go home as soon as possible, it might be better to file a salary claim [with MOM] and then go home [sooner].”
There are other considerations too, as highlighted by John Gee, former president of the migrant rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). As a panellist at the NUS Human Trafficking Conference in 2014, he said: “The difficulty is this: to go back to those lists of trafficking indicators, we find that many apply to migrant workers in general, and the process of evaluation that their use prompts tends to confirm that there is a broad overlap between the conditions faced by trafficked people and those experienced by low-paid migrant workers in general.”
When issues such as confiscated passports, high agent fees or crowded living conditions are so common among migrant workers in Singapore, it might not really be helpful to use the Delphi method as a checklist. In any case, Gee points out, one shouldn’t get overly hung up on whether someone has or hasn’t been trafficked; the fact that a worker’s experience checks off even one of the indicators—be it “excessive working days or hours”, “deceived about conditions of work” or “withholding of wages”—is already a sign that something unacceptable has occurred.
Take Malo Sree Lalchan Chandra, for example, who paid SGD7,600 to an unlicensed agent to come to Singapore. He’d been promised a job in aircon maintenance at a suburban mall, with a fixed monthly salary of SGD2,720—a kingly sum for a Bangladeshi worker on a work permit. Like Safiar, he didn’t get to see much of this promised salary; between the period of 29 December and 12 March, he only received a total of SGD814, of which SGD300 had technically been a loan. Following mediation with MOM, he settled for a payment of SGD5,500 from his employer. It was Chandra’s fourth time in Singapore; except for his first trip, he’d lost money every time.
One could argue that Chandra’s experience qualifies him to be classified as a victim of trafficking. Yet the contours of his case are familiar to caseworkers; many migrant workers who approach the non-government organisations for help have paid significant amounts of money to licensed or unlicensed agents, only to be paid less than they were promised—if at all. One doesn’t need to wait until these men are accepted as having been trafficked to recognise that they have been subjected to unfair and exploitative treatment.
Under the MOM’s construction sector quota, companies can employ seven work permit holders for every full-time local employee.
“Given the big overlap in common migrant worker experiences and those of people trafficked into labour exploitation, the job of identifying trafficking cases and responding to them appropriately could be made simpler if a strategy of raising the status and extending the protection of migrant workers in general was followed,” Gee said at the 2014 conference. “This ought to leave labour trafficking cases standing out more distinctly from other cases involving labour exploitation.”
Chok also points to the systemic issues that need to be fixed, such as the way work permits are tied to specific employers, giving bosses power and leverage over their workers. In such situations, workers who make complaints or argue with their employers for better treatment might simply find themselves facing repatriation if their work permits are cancelled. Even workers who do manage to lodge a claim with the ministry might then find themselves stuck in Singapore as investigations drag on.
“When workers come forward to make a complaint and then they suffer for it, then more workers will remain in exploitative working conditions,” Chok says. The answer, then, is not simply about trafficking and helping trafficked victims, but about long-term, broad- based recognition of labour rights for Singapore’s large community of migrant workers.
Photographs by Tom White