More legal protection for sex workers and foreign labourers?
To safeguard the vulnerable, tougher penalties were recently introduced against abusers of five categories of people. Experts and worker advocates see merit in the move and suggest additional areas for consideration.
Giving more protection to the vulnerable in Singapore is a welcome addition to the law, but harsher punishments for abusers alone may not be enough to ensure they are safe.
The Criminal Law Reform Bill was lauded by experts, Members of Parliament and social workers when it was passed in Parliament last month.
A large part of it seeks to deter mistreatment by stiffening the punishments for those found guilty of abusing people who belong to five vulnerable groups.
Under the amended Penal Code, offenders may receive twice the maximum punishments for certain crimes if the victims are maids, disabled, children under 14 or people whom they are in intimate or close relationships with.
This sends a clear message, said social work experts, about how serious the Government is in protecting those members of society who are less able to protect themselves.
While this is a step in the right direction, some advocacy groups for non-domestic migrant workers and sex workers have asked if these workers too could be included in the list of those considered vulnerable under the law.
Some experts also point out that harsher punishments will matter little if under-reporting of crimes against the vulnerable continues to be a problem.
Rather than rely so heavily on punitive measures, they suggest that more be done to help empower the weak.
"There are asymmetrical power imbalances in certain relationships resulting in certain groups that deserve special legal protection. It's important that the law recognises this," said Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan.
DEBTS AND POWER IMBALANCE
Before the changes to the law, maids and people with mental or physical disabilities already had extra protection in that their abusers could get up to 11/2 times the maximum punishment for certain crimes.
This has been increased to twice the maximum punishment.
Migrant worker welfare groups say expanding the ambit of the law to include more vulnerable groups and toughening the penalties are good moves and they hope the Government will extend similar protection to non-domestic foreign workers too.
While non-domestic foreign workers do not live with their employers as maids do, they too are susceptible to mistreatment and abuse, they point out.
Migrant worker advocates explain that non-domestic foreign workers, who are usually in the construction, marine shipyard or service sectors, typically arrive here in a disadvantaged position as they would have already incurred a huge amount of recruitment debts.
These are typically higher than those incurred by domestic foreign workers, said Ms Desiree Leong, a legal consultant at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).
Being heavily in debt often means that workers are more willing to put up with abuse, mistreatment or crimes committed against them, as they might fear that making a report could jeopardise their chances of employment and earning money for their families back home.
In addition to this fear, Ms Leong said Home has occasionally observed an "appreciable passivity" in investigations of crimes against non-domestic migrant workers; these include cases of physical and sexual assault as well as wrongful confinement.
Given the circumstances, this is likely to give rise to a sense among the migrant worker communities that their claims will not be taken seriously, she said, adding that recognising this vulnerability and acting accordingly on complaints would help empower the victims.
Agreeing that the inherent power imbalance is a key problem, Transient Workers Count Too's general manager Ethan Guo highlighted that non-domestic workers also face additional issues like being coerced into signing salary slips even if they have not been paid.
"The employers threaten to cancel their work permits and send the workers home if they don't comply," he said.
Sex worker advocacy group Project X also hopes that those under their care can be considered vulnerable under the law.
As it is, sex workers ply a risky trade, and for those who are unlicensed, there is the constant fear they will be caught, deported and banned from entering Singapore again.
"Many of them are pushed to engage in high-risk behaviour because they never know when they will be caught," said Ms Vanessa Ho, Project X's executive director.
A study published this year that involved researchers from the National University of Singapore estimated that there are 4,200 female sex workers in Singapore who cater to a client base of some 72,000 men.
The study, which was published last month, had set out to estimate the size of groups in Singapore that are at risk of HIV infection.
Ms Ho, commenting on the figures, said the high demand is a big draw for sex workers.
This makes them vulnerable too as they are less likely to report being cheated or beaten up by their clients or pimps for fear of being caught for vice and deported.
"There is little recourse for them and most are scared of the police," she said.
Ms Ho said extra legal protections would be welcome. "It will give the sex workers more confidence to come forward, and make it clearer to their clients that they should not be mistreated."
LAW SHOULD NOT BE OVER-INCLUSIVE
As society changes, it is likely that more groups could be considered vulnerable under the law in the future, said the head of the Association of Women for Action and Research's Sexual Assault Care Centre, Ms Anisha Joseph.
She said new technology and developments - such as the ease of travel - will facilitate new forms of crime as perpetrators can have more access to potential victims.
"Accordingly, the law needs to constantly evolve. A periodic review of these categories seems wise," she said.
However, continuously expanding the law to include vulnerable groups is not feasible.
Ms Joseph said that looking at breaking down structural barriers and shifting mindsets on a "large scale" would be more effective in helping people from these groups to be less vulnerable.
"The idea is to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach and to have practical, differential processes to address their unique concerns," she added.
Similarly, SMU's Prof Tan cautions against the law being over-inclusive in this aspect.
As it is, groups such as non-domestic workers and sex workers do have existing legal recourse to deal with abusers but whether they need to be added to the vulnerable groups list to be given enhanced protection through harsher punishments for their abusers remains debatable.
Ideally, the law should provide anyone who is disadvantaged or at risk greater protection, said Prof Tan, but there will always be groups who feel that they need added legal protection.
"By and large, the key vulnerable groups have been recognised under the recent changes. But the list is not cast in stone and it's an evolving situation," he added.
THE PROBLEM WITH ABUSE
While harsher punishments reflect society's abhorrence of such crimes and can serve as a deterrent, punishment alone will not prevent mistreatment of the vulnerable.
Social welfare advocates of the five recognised categories say under-reporting remains a concern and agree that harsher punishments are not the be-all and end-all of solutions.
Victims are often reluctant to make a report as they either do not feel that it will be effective or they do not want to get their abusers in trouble, said social workers, who added that abusers are usually people related or known to the victims.
The mere knowledge of severe penalties will not stop an aggressor from lashing out in the moment. Instead, it will be more effective to give victims the power and confidence to report the abuse, said welfare and social work experts.
For enhanced sentencing to be effective, people in these vulnerable groups have to trust and know that their claims will be taken seriously and investigated accordingly, and this might encourage more reporting.
Said Aware's Ms Joseph: "What is required is a multi-sectoral focused approach towards in-depth understanding of vulnerabilities and the creation of practical and equitable processes for vulnerable survivors to seek support and justice."
ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA
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