Mr Deputy Speaker,
Human trafficking is a gross human rights violation and a moral atrocity. According to International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates, there are at least 2.4 million trafficked persons around the world at any given time, with 56% of these in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet there are only a few thousand convictions of traffickers every year. Most victims are not identified and consequently never receive justice for the damage and hurt inflicted on them. Disturbingly, human trafficking remains a low-risk enterprise with high returns for traffickers. The ILO estimates that profits generated from human trafficking are as high as US$32 billion every year.
The United Nations (UN) points out that almost every country in the world is affected by human trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims. The US State Department said in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report that Singapore is a destination country for women and girls from China, India, and parts of Southeast Asia who are victims of sex trafficking, and a transit country for Cambodian and Filipino men subjected to forced labour on fishing vessels that stop at Singapore ports. The report stated that many foreign workers here have assumed large debts to recruitment agencies in both Singapore and their home countries, making them vulnerable to forced labour, including debt bondage. The report further said that some foreign workers 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, which are all potential indicators of trafficking. The Government has responded to this report, saying that it remains of the view that the US needs to adopt a more objective methodology in future reports.
Last year, there were 53 reported cases of sex trafficking and 49 reported cases of labour trafficking in Singapore. Of these, only seven have been prosecuted, while investigations for most of the other cases are ongoing.
Human trafficking is covered under UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. The Protocol came into force in 2003. Singapore is neither a signatory nor party to this Protocol, although it has ratified the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which is the parent convention to this protocol.
Singapore currently does not have a dedicated anti-trafficking law; this Bill will be the first. Currently, human trafficking is covered by several different pieces of legislation such as the Women’s Charter and the Children and Young Persons Act.
This Bill represents progress in acknowledging the problem of human trafficking in Singapore instead of conflating human trafficking with other crimes such as human smuggling or illegal migration as used to be the case. It also makes an attempt to move beyond the perception that the bulk of human trafficking offences are related to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, and acknowledges that labour trafficking is also a problem.
The main focus of this Bill is to criminalise trafficking by imposing penalties, and stepping up enforcement efforts to weed out traffickers. There are also some provisions for victim protection and assistance.
The Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons was set up in 2010, and is co-chaired by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Manpower. The Taskforce came up with the National Plan of Action in 2011 which aims to combat human trafficking through the “4Ps” framework of prevention, prosecution, protection and partnership.
In this Bill, of the 4Ps, prevention and prosecution feature strongly; protection of trafficking victims is provided for but is lacking in some areas; while partnership is largely absent. My speech will focus on the victim protection and assistance measures in the Bill.
Trafficking victim assistance and protection
The Bill has some provisions for protection and assistance to victims. Clause 18 protects victims of sexual exploitation by providing for in camera court proceedings, and a publication gag order to prevent the identification of victims. Clause 19 empowers the Director of Social Welfare to provide victims with assistance, including temporary shelter and counselling services, as he or she considers “practicable and necessary” in the circumstances of the case. However these are provided administratively at the discretion of the Director.
Sir, the provisions for victim protection and assistance in the Bill need to be strengthened further. There are two key reasons why this is necessary. First, it is the right thing to do for victims of human trafficking. Many victims would have suffered horribly in the hands of their traffickers, and may be in a state of shock, misery and disorientation in a foreign land. As a developed country, Singapore should do all it can to lessen their physical, mental, emotional and financial burdens while they assist in investigations and await the trial of their victimisers.
Second, strengthening the protection and assistance framework would encourage more trafficking victims to come forward to report their plight to the authorities. As human trafficking is a clandestine activity, there is often no paper trail and the prosecution relies heavily on the cooperation of victims to report and testify against suspects. In the absence of a strong victim protection and assistance framework, trafficking victims may decide that they are better off suffering in silence or may be reluctant to cooperate fully with authorities. This will make it harder for the authorities to hunt down traffickers and for prosecutors to secure convictions. Traffickers will then be able to brazenly continue with their evil deeds, and harm even more innocent victims.
There are several ways the victim assistance and protection framework can be improved. First, in addition to shelter and counselling, Clause 19(1) should also mention that victims should be provided with food and healthcare.
Second, victims should be allowed to work during the time their case is ongoing. Most foreign workers who leave their home countries and come to Singapore, do so to seek better work opportunities. The fear of not being able to carry on working while they undergo a lengthy court case, which may last up to three years, could discourage victims from coming forward, as most have families back home relying on their remittances and many would have incurred hefty debts to come to Singapore. While temporary employment is currently permitted where merited, this is done on a case-by-case basis. There is no public mention of the criteria and merits used to determine this. This will result in a degree of uncertainty for victims who are deciding whether or not to report trafficking.
Third, genuine victims should be assisted to safely return to their country of origin without unreasonable delay after the conclusion of the trial. One of the initiatives proposed in the 2011 National Plan of Action (NPA) by the Inter-Agency Taskforce was to “facilitate the re-entry and return of victims to their home countries” after conducting a review of provisions to allow this. The review was due to be completed in 2013 , but this provision is nowhere to be found in the Bill. May I ask if the review been completed and what its conclusions are?
Fourth, victims should also be given access to legal aid and representation. They should also be provided with information on the criminal and administrative proceedings related to their cases, including advice on pursuing civil action against their traffickers to obtain compensation.
Fifth, the courts should study if it is possible to allow victims of human trafficking to attach civil claims to the criminal case, as many will not have the means to take out separate civil lawsuits. As brought up by Ms Sylvia Lim in this House earlier this year, traditional criminal proceedings are aimed at punishing the offender, while the victim usually receives no compensation for injuries or losses from the crime. I would like to suggest that Singapore could consider a scheme practiced in the Netherlands, which allows trafficking victims to attach a civil claim to a criminal case, so that the criminal court can decide on claims at the sentencing stage.
And sixth, with respect to victim protection, the Bill should clarify that trafficking victims will not be prosecuted for offences committed by them, if such offences are a direct consequence of their situation as trafficked persons. Without an assurance that they will not suffer repercussions for speaking out, many may opt not to report their abuse.
Some may argue that providing strong victim assistance and protection could incentivise false reporting. I think this fear is overstated. As a matter of principle, we should not compromise the interests of the vast majority of genuine victims in our attempt to prevent a small minority of false reporters.
A clear definition and guidelines of what constitutes trafficking will help prosecutors and investigators correctly classify trafficking cases based on their circumstances. Genuine trafficking victims should be spared from prosecution. To provide the necessary deterrence, those who engage in wilful false reporting should be prosecuted. This is already provided for under Clause 20 of this Bill.
Apart from victim assistance and protection, I have several more suggestions on how this Bill and its subsequent implementation could be enhanced to better meet its objectives.
First, after this law is enacted, there needs to be sufficient public education provided to foreign workers, employers and members of the public who may come into contact with trafficked victims. This is so that they will all be more aware of their rights and responsibilities under this law, and report violations when they occur.
Second, the penalties for human trafficking under Clause 4 of this Bill should be enhanced further, given the terrible nature of the crime and the fact that human traffickers often make a tidy profit off their victims. Clause 4 specifies a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment, a 100,000 dollar fine and caning for the first offence. In comparison, under Proposition 35 which was passed in the state of California in the US to enhance penalties for human trafficking, the maximum fine is 1.5 million US dollars and prison sentences of 15-years-to-life.
Third, the Government should reveal how it plans to measure the success of anti-trafficking efforts following the passing of this Bill. The Government should conduct benchmarking studies every few years to measure the scale of the problem, and how effectively we are rooting out trafficking. The methods, data, and findings should be made available to the public.
And lastly, the fourth “P” in the anti-trafficking framework – partnership – is not mentioned at all in the Bill. Partnership with civil society and cross-border cooperation is a key tenet of a broader anti-trafficking strategy. Human trafficking is a problem that has to be tackled simultaneously on different fronts, and there has to be effective collaboration between different organisations and governments for this to succeed.
Mr Deputy Speaker, this Bill is a step forward in tackling the serious and extensive problem of human trafficking in the world. However, in order for the Bill to achieve its intended objective, the 4P’s of prevention, prosecution, protection and partnership need to work hand-in-hand. We cannot over-rely on prevention and prosecution. Greater protection and assistance to victims of human trafficking is both a moral obligation and a practical imperative to securing more convictions.
The key success indicator of this legislation is if it enables the authorities to identify more victims, to prosecute and convict more culprits of human trafficking, and lower the incidence of this heinous crime. Once this Bill is passed, I urge the Government to expeditiously sign and ratify the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.
Sir, I support the Bill.