MARUAH states that the Singapore government needs to take more active action to address the issue of modern slavery in Singapore. A study by the Walk Free Foundation found that there is an estimated 19,000 people (or 3.4% of the population) in Singapore who are entrapped in slave-like conditions, placing Singapore in 97th place out of 167 countries in the 2018 Global Slavery Index (GSI). The definition of modern slavery used in the report includes practices like forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery and slavery-like practices, and human trafficking.
MARUAH severely condemns the phenomenon of modern slavery, which is a crime of outrageous abuses in human rights. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Today, slavery takes on various forms – sometimes quite different from the typical practices of being caged and abused – yet they retain many aspects of these practices. Victims continue to work in abysmal conditions – in isolation without contact with their loved ones, no rest days, and in some cases, being starved, beaten, and denied full salary. The conditions under which some of them work are inhumane and torturous, with little to no freedom and rights.
Unbeknownst to many, Singapore is a hotspot for human trafficking activities, with migrant workers being the most vulnerable to such illegal activities. The 2019 US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report places Singapore in Tier 2, out of three categories. The report stated that foreign work permit holders, who make up more than a quarter of the total labour force in Singapore, are especially vulnerable to trafficking through debt bondage and threats. Based on standards provided by the International Labour Office and the European Commission, any individual who has encountered deceptive recruitment, exploitation and coercion is considered to have been trafficked.
There has been an increasing body of work on migrant workers in Singapore, including a research study jointly done by the SMU and a non-profit organization, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). The study found that many migrant workers incur large amounts of debt to recruitment agents in their home countries in order to secure a job in Singapore, only to realise that they have been deceived of the actual working conditions and salary when they reach Singapore. Often, these migrant workers end up receiving a much lower salary than promised and have to work long hours with no off days. However, these workers lack bargaining power and often accept such poor conditions due to the deep fear (or explicit threats) of deportation, which would mean they lose their income, have debts they cannot clear, families to feed and children in school.
Foreign domestic workers were also found to be vulnerable to forced labour and human rights abuses by another study conducted by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Liberty Shared as their work takes place in the private realm away from public scrutiny. The supply chains need stricter regulations and governance to address the loopholes that still exist, such as the situation that many migrant workers are reluctant to testify in court or make claims against their employers due to the fear of deportation. A 2015 study by the Singapore Management University (SMU) found that nearly two thirds of migrant workers with injuries or salary claims, brought to the notice of the Ministry of Manpower, had been threatened with deportation.
Besides migrant workers, another group that can fall prey to modern slavery conditions, is the low-income population. In 2018, Member of Parliament (MP) Zainal Sapari identified a situation which he termed “slavery of the poor” in one of his parliamentary speeches. He argued that low-income workers, especially those working in the cleaning, security and landscape sectors, are prone to being taken advantage of by employers because of the limited job options they have and lack of knowledge of their rights. He also noted that many of these workers will never have the means to retire, which he argues to be a form of slavery in itself as they are entrapped in such circumstances for life. The recent Minimum Income Standards study conducted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, did show that some elderly in Singapore would never have the means to retire, as similar view that MP Mr Zainal too shared, due to inadequate sustainable work incomes, savings and public assistance transfers. MARUAH appreciates Mr Zainal’s efforts in raising this issue in Parliament and for fighting for the rights of low-income workers in Singapore.
According to the 2018 GSI, Singapore scored a grade of CCC in the Government Response Rating, with countries that fall under this rating described as having a “limited response to modern slavery, with limited victim support services”. Singapore was also specifically mentioned in the report repeatedly as one of the countries that is taking relatively little action when compared to the scale of the problem and amount of resources available. Being labelled as having a weak response relative to GDP sends a wrong signal to the international community that we, in Singapore, show little regard for human rights issues, especially the severe violations that occur within modern slavery.
MARUAH is disappointed with Singapore’s poor rating in the 2018 GSI. MARUAH urges the Singapore government to recognize the fact that modern slavery is taking place in the country. As a high-income economy with high levels of resources, the government is obliged to do more to protect the rights of the groups that are susceptible to modern slavery, including migrant workers and the low-income (elderly) population in Singapore.
For more information, the full report of the 2018
Global Slavery Index can be accessed here: https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/
 The Government Response Rating is based on a score out of a maximum of 100; the best rating being AAA and the worst, D. Singapore scored 32.8/100, which puts it under the rating CCC. The full description of the rating CCC is: The government has a limited response to modern slavery, with limited victim support services, a criminal justice framework that criminalises some forms of modern slavery, and has policies that provide some protection for those vulnerable to modern slavery. There may be evidence of a National Action Plan and/or national coordination body. There may be evidence that some government policies and practices may criminalise and/or deport victims and/or facilitate slavery. Services may be largely provided by IOs/NGOs with international funding, with limited government funding or in-kind support. For more information on the ratings, please refer to https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/methodology/government-response/