Stamping out modern slavery in Asia

It is a topic that is traditionally under-covered due to the clandestine conditions surrounding trafficking, but if you look carefully, slavery in its modern form is everywhere, affecting the world’s most vulnerable people.

Trust Forum Asia 2016
Panelists at Trust Forum Asia, including Cambodian Longdy Chhap (second from left), sharing their stories of modern day slavery. Image: Trust Forum Asia

Cambodian Longdy Chhap was just five years old when he was struck with polio and lost the use of his legs. When he was 10, a broker convinced him that instead of being a family burden, he should go to Thailand to work, promising good money and living conditions. He agreed, but the reality was different.

When he arrived, he was forced to beg on the streets. For six years, he was abused, beaten, faced starvation and arrests, before he was finally rescued and sent to Hagar Cambodia, an organization working on human rights abuses.

While telling his story at a recent event in Singapore last month – the Trust Forum Asia, hosted by Thomson Reuters and its Foundation – Longdy, now 25, choked and broke down a few times on stage, bringing a stiff silence to the room. I was blinking back tears – and I wasn’t the only one in the 200-strong audience doing so.

Londgy’s story was one of many shared that day on modern day slavery – a growing trade that the International Labour Organisation estimates is generating illegal profits worth over US$150 billion a year from human misery.

It is an issue that is traditionally under-covered due to the clandestine conditions surrounding trafficking. But if you look carefully, slavery in its modern form is everywhere, affecting the world’s most vulnerable people. These include forced or bonded labour, people trafficking, descent-based or child slavery, and early or forced marriages.

Globally, about 36 million people live as modern day slaves, according to anti-slavery non-profit Walk Free, and 60 per cent of them are enslaved in Asia.

Human trafficking in Asia has been in the global spotlight in recent years since the Associated Press ran a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of stories exposing rampant corruption and slavery in Thailand’s billion-dollar fishing industry.

Apart from the fact this is morally wrong, research has shown that forced labour has broader social and economic costs in terms of hampering development and perpetuating poverty.

The increased scrutiny has since forced the Thai government to implement reforms, businesses to relook at slavery in its supply chains, and a tightening of laws in the UK and US that will punish those complicit in trafficking.

This progress is long overdue in an era of globalization where the rising affluence of the growing global middle class has been driving the mass production of cheap goods and services made possible only with low-cost or forced labour.

Apart from the fact this is morally wrong, research has shown that forced labour has broader social and economic costs in terms of hampering development and perpetuating poverty.

There is also a strong link between slavery and environmental degradation. In certain industries that face high environmental risks such as agriculture, fishing, logging and mining, the use of forced labour is often documented. The exploitation of both people and environment is even more likely when these activities take place in areas where monitoring and legal enforcement are weak.

This is why it is important that we look with a critical eye at these supply chains and at loopholes in legal systems to stamp out slavery in all its forms.

Spotlight on Singapore

Singapore does not house these particular industries, but forms of exploitation of foreign workers do take place here, including deceiving workers into sex work, forced labour or servitude, which by some international standards constitutes human trafficking.

In clear-cut cases, Singapore’s new Prevention of Human Trafficking Act provides some legal recourse for victims.

Still, there are many practices that fall into grey areas. These include charging foreign workers unreasonably high fees to enter the country, then making them work long hours for little pay, giving them no days off, or threatening them with repatriation if they wish to leave their jobs. Some foreign workers also have to endure squalid living conditions, poor-quality food and verbal or physical abuse, and have little or no medical support.

Such exploitation of workers - even if not illegal - goes against Singapore’s aspirations to become an inclusive and vibrant global city.

The Government has in recent years made significant progress in addressing the work conditions of migrant workers, including instituting a weekly rest day for foreign domestic workers, written employment terms and itemised payslips. There is also a law requiring large worker dormitories to meet minimum living standards.

Even so, there remains much to do.

A 2014 survey by local charity Transient Workers Count Too following the new rule showed that the number of helpers that get a regular day off per week remains at a low 41 per cent.

Some other less obvious forms of control that violate international standards - including keeping a helper’s passport, confiscating her phone, “safekeeping” her wages - are still widely practiced in Singaporean households. When questioned, these employers offer up excuses such as “the agency said she agreed” or “I’m doing this for her own good”.

Meanwhile, there are still regular reports of contractors providing poor, cramped, infested accommodation to foreign workers, and even of doctors colluding with them to give workers less sick leave than they deserved.

We need to take a stand against these practices.

If we don’t, other countries will. Indonesia said on May 18 that it will stop sending new live-in maids abroad from as early as next year. Its authorities want domestic workers to live separately from their employers in dormitories, work regular hours, and get public holidays and days off.

What needs to be done

The Singapore Government can take the lead by first regulating recruitment fees so workers can avoid debt bondage. The law should require employers to pay for a worker’s transport and recruitment fees, and errant local and overseas recruiters should be barred from bringing migrant workers into Singapore.

Workers should also be given the right to change employers. Currently, they can only do so with their employer’s consent. The system can be designed such that, for example, the worker’s new employer pays an administrative fee to the previous employer to cover costs incurred.

This is a cause that StopTraffickingSg, a local campaign led by HOME - a local non-profit serving migrant workers - and other NGOs are advocating. It has been lobbying for the inclusion of victims’ rights in Singapore’s anti-trafficking legislation, and for the state to adopt a victim-centric approach to handling trafficked cases.

In the private sector, businesses - such as property developers here - should be looking deep into their supply chains for signs of forced labour among their contractors and rectify the situation. It is insufficient to say that because these workers are not direct employees, they are not its responsibility.

On a personal level, we can help by educating ourselves on the issue in order to hold businesses and government to account. And although we might not be able to solve these complex issues overnight, we can all start with our own actions. This includes choosing only to buy products that are responsibly-produced; and also, by treating our own helpers with dignity and respect.

Modern slavery in all its forms needs to be tackled not only because - in the words of Martin Luther King Jr - injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, but also because it has no place in the society that we all aspire for.

A version of this column was first published in The Straits Times.

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