Singapore — the foreign worker abuse cum human trafficking hub

EDITOR’S UPDATE: A recent BBC News report includes a video on some china workers in Singapore who are working at Marina Bay Sands IR project striking over pay and working conditions: see here.

Written by Ng E-Jay
09 June 2009

Human trafficking is one of the worst human rights abuses in the globalized world. Has Singapore done its part to crack down on organized groups forcing foreign women into prostitution in Singapore? Has Singapore done its part to ensure that employers who abuse workers, cheat them, or deprive them of their rights to proper living conditions and a fair wage are promptly dealt with? Sadly to this day, the answer is no.

In my article “Government’s pledge to protect foreign workers’ rights should go beyond mere empty talk” which I penned on 16 Jan this year, I highlighted that in recent months, foreign workers have complained about being unpaid, unfed, poorly housed, and in some cases, even abandoned, but that unless the Government is willing to take more concrete measures to address the root causes of foreign worker abuse in Singapore, its pledge to protect foreign workers’ rights will remain largely as empty talk.

The root cause of this problem, in my opinion, is our “growth at all cost” policy, which emphasizes GDP growth at the expense of human rights and sustainable development, and a complicit Government which apparently is slow in addressing the abuse of foreign workers in Singapore because of the immense pressure to import large quantities of cheap labour to support our enormous projects like the Integrated Resorts (Singapore’s euphemism for casinoes).

Yawning Bread articles (here, here, here, here and here) chronicle that sorry tale of some China workers who had not been paid for months, or who had arbitrary deductions made from their salaries, and who had been detained by the employers’ agents, police and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority in preparation for deportation. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) did very little to the help the workers even though the employer appeared to be breaking the law. At one stage, MOM even revoked the work permits of workers without first ensuring that their wage claims had been settled.

The initial pussyfooting by the Ministry of Manpower over these gross violations of Singapore’s Employment Act and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, and in some instances, outrightly turning a blind eye to the obvious abuses that were going on right under their nose, is deplorable. It was only after hordes of foreign workers starting descending on MOM premises to protest about their plight that concrete action was taken against the errant companies. Even so, it remains to be seen whether the workers’ claims were resolved in a fair manner, or whether much was shoved under the carpet.

A Channel News Asia report “MOM recovers about S$800,000 in claims for workers” published on 08 June 2009 revealed that MOM had recovered about S$800,000 in claims on behalf of 750 workers between January and April this year, and that 86% of cases had been heard and concluded by the Labour Court within two weeks from the first hearing. The report did not state what was the actual amount claimed by the workers, and it is impossible to deduce whether the $800,000 recovered represents fair compensation for the workers, or is a mere fraction of the total amount that was due to them.

Another aspect to the human trafficking situation in Singapore is that of illegal prostitution of foreign women who are lured to Singapore with promises of employment, only to find themselves being turned into sex slaves.

A disturbing blog article entitled “Sex trafficking in Singapore” posted on 05 June 2009 aggregates a number of media reports about foreign women being forced into prostitution in Singapore, with apparently no concrete action being taken against perpetrators of this crime.

One of the articles mentioned is a piece published by The New Paper on 09 Feb 2009 entitled “Escape from Geylang brothel“. This article is about the story of an Indian national who had been duped into coming to Singapore on the prospect of being employed as a maid here, but who subsequently found herself being driven to a house in Geylang and being forced into prostitution. She was eventually taken in by a Singaporean woman, but only after being rescued by another man who demanded a sexual favour from her in return for it.

Although the Indian lady related that there were close to 40 prostitutes from India and Bangladesh in that house, and about five were being held against their will, the police claimed that there was no evidence of syndicate activity. To date, there has been no follow-up on the case.

Could some women have been illegally trafficked into Singapore to provide sexual services for the large number of foreign workers here?

It is a great shame that our authorities are dragging their feet on the serious issue of human trafficking in Singapore, but are instead focussed obsessively on pump-priming the economy without regard to the environmental or social consequences of their policies.

The human trafficking situation should be given more extensive coverage by both mainstream and alternative media, so as to put greater political pressure on the Government to tackle it decisively.

4 comments on Singapore — the foreign worker abuse cum human trafficking hub

  1. I like your phrase “it remains to be seen whether the workers’ claims were resolved in a fair manner, or whether much was shoved under the carpet.”

    That was what happened to me when I sought help from MOM.

    I was working in this government linked company for more than a year when one day, a colleague complained to the management, claiming that I had committed an “irresponsible act”. The company terminated me without questioning me!

    Imagine my anguish, when after returning from my lunch break, I was suddenly asked to report to the office but “pack your things first”. At the HR office, the letter of termination was just simply thrown to me with no further words spoken! Furious that I had been back-stabbed and the manner in which the termination was done, I tried vehemently to reason with them but their final reply was: We have the right to terminate you without reasons!

    I approached the MOM for help and they arranged a meeting between my ex-company and me to settle the matter amicably, even though they(MOM) knew that I was compensated according to the Employment Act. Predictably, the meeting ended in a deadlock because the company’s representative went on to invent more accusations against me which I effectively rebutted by exposing the loopholes of his accusations, leaving him dumbfounded. Finally, both sides were asked to file our defence. I submitted mine only 3 days later but my ex-company submitted theirs 2 months later, this time, inventing more “offences” committed by me which were not mentioned at all during the meeting in MOM. More amazingly, they engaged a law firm to represent them, incurring costs of up to thousands of dollars from the company fund! This triggered an exchange of letters that went on for nearly one year and then the MOM stopped contacting me.

    I wrote in to MOM several times but they never bothered to reply.

    Finally, I approached my then MP, who then wrote to the MOM twice, but both letters were also ignored.

    The case appeared to die a natural death, when months later, the then Manpower Minister, Dr Lee Boon Yang visited my constituency. I managed to raise this issue to him during the dialogue session with the residents and was told to “let me know the details”. I did not manage to hand my letter to him personally because his bodyguards stopped me and I could only do so on the following day, through my MP.

    This time the MOM finally replied!

    Relief for me? You bet! In their reply, they turned around and accused me of making a false allegation against my company by saying “our investigations showed that you were contractually terminated and not wrongfully dismissed as alleged by you” an accusation which infuriated me further. Nevertheless they tried to play things down by saying that they “managed to persuade the company to offer you an ex-gratia $800 on a “goodwill” basis but without admitting that the termination was unlawful”. Naturally, I was unhappy and angry at the MOM’s false accusation against me. I requested an amount of $4,000 due to one year’s loss of CPF but if not, the company should at least retract their accusation against me. I did not mind even if they did not pay me anything. But even this was rejected.

    Furious with the way MOM handled my case, I wrote in to voice my displeasure. The MOM responded by telling me that the Minister had ruled that the termination was justified and tried to close the case.

    Furious at this ruling, I wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office. Predictably, the letter did not reach the intended person. It was redirected to MOM who replied evasively, each time resulting in me exposing the loopholes of their replies. Guess what happened? This exchange went on for a few more months until the MOM stopped replying me!

    This was how MOM “helped” me!

    This incident convinced me about what opposition candidates had been claiming, that absolute power corrupts, although not in monetary terms. It has bugged me for the past ten years and although I never denied the “good job done by PAP”all these years, I was finally convinced that we really need more oppositions in parliament.

    The way the MOM handled the case was clearly condoning the bullying of a defenceless and powerless humble worker by a government linked organization.

    Sadly though, the then General Manager of my ex-company who made the decision to spend several thousands of dollars to engage a law firm (which was absolutely unnecessary!), thereby, misusing the company funds, managed to get away with it because no one dares to report it to higher authorities. On the other hand, an innocent worker wrongly terminated for an offence he did not commit, had to suffer in silence. After ten long years, something is telling me to try my luck by writing to the present PM to see if there can be any miracles by my dear leader to address the injustice done to me, and most of all, to convince me that the PAP practise what they preached– to protect the integrity of defenceless workers like us.

    Well, I can only dream on….

  2. It’s great of you to show empathetic concern for ‘foreigners’. Most don’t.

    The question that came to mind some time ago was, to what degree does governmental policies with regards to ‘foreign’ workers encourage gross exploitation,

    And to what degree does the governmental exploitation of singaporeans themselves desensitize the latter to the idea of exploitation thus disabling them from the exploitative nature of their own ‘normal’ actions.

    One of the ways by which exploitation is ‘countered’ is by a people ceasing to see it as such and focusing one’s efforts on contending with its consequences – for fear of punitive actions should they take the exploiter to task, i.e. china, singapore, are a prime examples. This is a significant ‘backdoor’ to our subconscious, and which, oftentimes, sees the occupation of the selfsame exploitative spirit within ourselves.

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