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In February 2017, Channel News Asia published an article on sentencing of a man who had exploited more than 100 foreign workers. These workers were pressured into falsely declaring and accepting lower salaries than was promised on their work passes – if they refused they were told that they would be sent back to their home countries. They were also housed in overcrowded, illegal dormitories.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Whilst Singapore is often hailed as a land of economic opportunity, the aggressive push to transform the nation into a knowledge-based economy has not only attracted highly-skilled foreign talent, but also expanded the demand for lower-skilled workers to support the economic infrastructure and service needs for increasingly affluent Singaporeans.

Today, there are close to 1.4 million migrant workers in Singapore, many of whom hail from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Philippines and Indonesia. These temporary migrant workers enter Singapore on time-restricted work visas often referred to as work permits. Critically, these visas are employer-controlled, which means that if employees are dismissed or job conditions are changed beyond reasonable limits, they have little recourse but to either return home or live with the unfair terms, depending on which is a worse cost to bear.

Underpayment of agreed wages is not uncommon among their experiences. If faced with this situation, what is a migrant worker to do? They are living in a foreign land removed from their support networks, and typically lack full understanding of employment rights and legal mechanisms to enforce these. Even if the weight of the law were on their side, how would he or she go about backing-up his claim? If a contract was signed, there is no ostensible means to determine if it was signed freely or under duress. Indeed, there is no way to determine if signatures were forged. This evidential black-hole means the burden of proof is often insurmountable. Other obstacles include financial costs of judicial remediation and unemployment.

It is also worth noting that agency recruitment fees that migrant workers pay to come to Singapore are hefty, sometimes equivalent to a year or more’s wages. Although the Singapore law limits agency fees and mandates prosecution for those who exceed them, many foreign workers assume huge debts to recruitment agencies or individual recruiters in their home countries or Singapore, making them vulnerable to forced labour and debt bondage.

This exacts a coercive power and heightens the cost of being repatriated. For the migrant worker the choice is often reduced to – speak out and bear the costs and risk being sent home, or continue to work under unfair conditions. Which would you choose?

In Singapore, HAGAR works with the government and law enforcement authorities through the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons, to provide critical trauma recovery services to women who have been trafficked into the country for sexual and labour exploitation. Their stay here in Singapore ranges from months to years depending on the duration of their court case. Through this time, we also help them to find temporary employment opportunities. If your company would like to provide short-term employment for these survivors, please drop us a message and we will be in touch.

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