Does Singapore have a human trafficking problem?

Singapore's reliance on cheap labour has led to close to 1 million people vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers.

Singapore is a wealthy Asian city, a hub of global commerce and a regional economic powerhouse. But beneath this patina of bright lights and bustling activity are more than 1.37 million foreign workers, running basic services and supplementing the country’s manpower needs.

Many come to the city with dreams and promises of decent employment, but close to 1 million become low-wage migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation.

“Singapore has a trafficking problem, one that it doesn’t necessarily acknowledge,” says Dr Sallie Yea, a lecturer in Sociology at La Trobe University. “Vulnerable people arrive in Singapore from South and Southeast Asian countries like Bangladesh and India with the hope of finding employment,and they end up living in crowded conditions, working in construction, manual labour and house-keeping.”

“Singapore relies on these people to keep the city functioning, but doesn’t acknowledge trafficking as an issue beyond cases of sexual exploitation. They’re a vulnerable population, and it’s of little surprise that they’ve had the highest rates of coronavirus that have hit the city.”

In her new book, Paved with Good Intentions?, Dr Yea traces the emergence of the anti-trafficking movement in Singapore from its inception in the early 2010s, until the time of writing in 2017–2018.

Singapore has been slow to address the problem, having passed anti-trafficking legislation recently in 2015. This places it second-last in responsiveness amongst Asian states, behind only North Korea.

She identifies three phases of the Singaporean government’s attitude to human trafficking, beginning with 2010 when it reiterated its denial that human trafficking was a significant problem.

Faced with a growing body of evidence to the contrary, authorities then moved into a concessionary phase by establishing the Trafficking In Persons Taskforce in 2012.

The third and current phase is characterised by a continuation and expansion of measures already introduced, but also by a parallel effort to define the parameters of victimhood.

“The government has effectively managed to reduce the numbers of prospective trafficking victims by narrowing the criteria for how victims are identified,” says Dr Yea. “Only the most severe and unambiguous cases of human trafficking are classified as such, with child exploitation in the sex industry being a particular area of focus.”

“By adhering to a more circumscribed definition of trafficking, Singaporean organisations, including bureaucratic ones, can claim that they’re responding effectively to the problem,” says Dr Yea.“Such a re-framing is misleading, however, because it ignores a wide range of migrant labour exploitation issues both within and beyond the sex industry that more accurately reflect the country’s human trafficking landscape.”

In 2018 the US State Department released a Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which graded Singapore’s efforts as not meeting the minimum standards needed to address human trafficking. Singapore refuted the findings, claiming that many of the cases investigated didn’t meet the criteria of human trafficking.

“The problem with this ‘master narrative’ is that it propagates a narrow image of victimhood in which the plight of exploited migrant labourers in Singapore goes either undetected or unsupported, or both,” says Dr Yea. “There is a clear disconnect between the experiences of individuals who are trafficked in Singapore, and the discursive construction and programmatic and policy responses to it.”