The short answer is yes. In fact, according to the International Organisation of Migration, about 200,000 women and children are trafficked annually from Southeast Asia, making up a third of the global trafficking trade.
Singapore has emerged as a popular destination for human trafficking victims and also as a transit country where victims either travel through, or stay for a temporary period before moving on to the destination country.
What is Human Trafficking?
By definition, human trafficking is the action of either recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring or receiving an individual for the purpose of exploitation.
According to section 3(1) of Singapore’s Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA), a person using either of these means on their victims will be said to have committed an offence:
- Threat or use of force, or any other form of coercion;
- Fraud or deception;
- Abuse of power;
- Abuse of the individual’s vulnerability; or
However, if the victim is under the age of 18 years old, they will be considered to have been trafficked even if the offender had not used either of the above means to coerce the victim. In fact, it would not even matter if the victim had consented or not, and if the offender was the victim’s parent, it would still be an offence.
Types of Human Trafficking in Singapore
The most common trafficking activities in Singapore have been mostly related to sex, forced labour and child trafficking. This may be due to traffickers capitalising on Singapore’s strong economy and reputation by deceiving victims into believing they may obtain work opportunities in the country.
Women for sexual exploitation: victims are tricked into leaving their countries for Singapore with offers of legitimate employment. Some of these offers might have been unlawfully extended by recruitment agencies.
The victims would then be forced into debt after being charged extremely high administrative and recruitment fees and may also be tricked into signing contracts with terms that they did not initially agree upon. As a result, they may end up working in a job they did not sign up for, earning much less than what was offered.
Upon arrival in Singapore, they will get their travel documents confiscated and eventually, coerced into prostitution to pay off the debt.
Forced labour: victims include construction workers, domestic helpers and other labour-intensive jobs.
Upon reaching Singapore, the victims will be told that they have incurred a large amount of debt in the form of recruitment, transportation, visa processing and even commendation fees. Sometimes there is even an interest imposed on the original debt.
The victims may also be warned that they would be fined or subject to penalties if they fail to reach a quota of number of hours worked or goods produced and over time, the debt incurred increases to the extent that the victim may find themselves unable to ever pay off the full amount, resulting in debt bondage — or forced to work under conditions of slavery.
Child trafficking: according to a factsheet by ECPAT International, a child protection network, over 1.2 million children are trafficked worldwide annually with Singapore as one of the destinations for victims from neighbouring countries such as The Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and China.
There are also a number of Singaporean sex tourists who travel overseas to engage in these acts, possibly contributing to the increasing number of children being trafficked to serve this demand.
Example of a Human Trafficking Case in Singapore
According to an article published by the Straits Times on 12th February 2020, a couple was found guilty of offences under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act in November last year. They were each sentenced to five years and six months’ jail for three counts of abusing their power to exploit their victims. They were also fined $7,500 each, and ordered to pay compensation of $4,878.31 to one of their victims over unpaid wages.
The couple managed Hindi entertainment clubs in Singapore and exploited three of their female nightclub workers, even coaxing one of them to prostitute herself.
The wife was also convicted of three prostitution-related offences under the Women’s Charter.
The Deputy public prosecutors in charge of the case had stated in their submissions that the husband was the sole managing operator of one club in the city area and was responsible for recruiting performing artists at a nearby nightspot.
He recruited three female Bangladeshi dancers for the clubs and provided them accommodation in the couple’s apartment. The couple jointly managing the daily operations of the two clubs and their employees was also found to have confiscated the victims’ passports, work permits and mobile phones.
The victim testified in court that the wife had told her to “go out with customers”, meaning to having sex with them. The victim initially disagreed and wanted to return to Bangladesh but she was told that she had to pay a fee of 400,000 Bangladeshi taka (S$6,500). The victim was approached by the wife again with a similar proposal multiple times and was even told that she could remit half her earnings back home.
However, each time the victim returned to their apartment after having sex with the customers, she would be subjected to a body search by the wife who will take away all the money and items that she had received.
The victim eventually fled the club through its back door in May 2016 after woking there for about five months.
Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling
Although these two terms may seem related, they are not. In fact, there is a very important difference.
Migrant Smuggling: the act of transporting people for the purpose of illegal entry into a certain country. The individual may have consented.
Human Trafficking: the act of either recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring or receiving an individual for the purpose of exploitation. Consent is irrelevant here as it may have been obtained via deceptive methods of the trafficker.
Punishment for Human Trafficking in Singapore
Besides Human trafficking, you can also be charged if you were found to have played a role in abetting the offence, even in the form of providing transportation or facilitating the crime, or receiving payment in connection with the exploitation of a trafficked victim.
All three offences carry the maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and up to six strokes of the cane. Repeat offenders will face tougher penalties.
What Happens If You Spot Someone Who May Need Help?
There are some general telltale signs among victims of human trafficking and if you spot someone who exhibits some, or most of these characteristics, they may be a victim.
- Appearing malnourished
- Living in a cramped space with multiple people
- Showing signs of physical abuse
- Avoiding eye contact during social interactions
- Overly scripted responses in social settings
- Lack of official identification documents
- Unusually anxious or fearful reaction to law enforcement or
- Little to no personal possessions
- Lack of knowledge to which city the person is at
If you suspect a case of human trafficking, you may make either a police report, or to the Ministry of Manpower for labour trafficking cases.
Getting a Criminal Lawyer in Singapore
Mr Amarjit Singh Sidhu of Amarjit Sidhu Law Practice has represented numerous clients in a wide variety of matters over the years from traffic offences, family disputes to high-profile criminal cases. With a vast knowledge of Singapore’s laws and a wealth of experience, Mr Amarjit Singh Sidhu will be able to provide valuable and timely advice for your situation. For more information, feel free to contact us for a consultation.