Long Read: Bound by Chains
At 15, with two young children to feed, Fahrina wasn’t sure what she was going to do when her husband left her for another woman. Thankfully, her family loaned her 20,000 Bangladeshi Taka (BDT), approximately $343, to start an embroidery business. To her relief, the business took off. She went into a partnership with a friend who had a sari-making business in Dhaka. Everything was going well until her partner’s husband planted a seed in her head that there was more money to be made as a cleaner at a hospital in Singapore. With the future of her children on her mind, the lure of BDT60,000 to BDT70,000 a month, and the admission to herself that she was getting bored with embroidery, Fahrina paid her partner’s husband BDT8,000 to get her a passport and arrange the trip.
When the day of her departure arrived, he told her a Bangladeshi man would receive her at Changi Airport. Doe-eyed, Fahrina had no idea of the heinousness that awaited her. Within days of her arrival in our seemingly pristine country, the Tangail native was brought to a hotel in Geylang owned by a fellow Bangladeshi. In one of the rooms, she asked the owner “Geylangki?” (What is Geylang?) He explained that Geylang was a very bad place filled with murderers and gangsters, and then sensing her fear, he began touching her body and raping her. All she could do while it happened was cry. Later on, the man who received her at the airport (who turned out to be a pimp named Kosha Delong), thrust her into the street to sell her body while he waited close by. Helpless and alone in an alien country, there was little she could do but comply or risk further abuse.
Most Singaporeans are unaware of such vile crimes that go on in our beloved nation. Most that do know sympathise but just look the other way because it is easier. Fahrina is but one of the estimated 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking worldwide. And sex trafficking is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to modern-day slavery. Other forms of slavery include bonded labour, forced labour, child labour, domestic servitude, and even forced marriage.
Due to the various forms it takes, it may be difficult to define modern-day slavery but the US State Department describes it as “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion”.
This feature will plunge you into a corrupt and unscrupulous world where human lives are regarded as nothing more than a commodity that can be traded, bought, or simply taken.
Singapore, being an ever-growing hub for trade and commerce, is a very attractive place for foreign individuals looking for a chance at a better life. Sadly, this also presents human trafficking syndicates with a very attractive bait.
Dangling false promises like carrots, these traffickers coerce both minors and adults into various forms of enslavement, one of them being sex slavery. Hailing from regions that are typically economically and politically marginalised, millions of women, men and children are lured by prospects of better-paying jobs only to end up in brothels, strip clubs, massage parlours and the like. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Thailand are just a few countries in Asia where these unknowing victims come from.
Sylvia Lee, founder of Emancipasia (a local organisation that combats modern-day slavery), gives us a better idea on how women are tricked into becoming prostitutes in Singapore. What is disturbing, Lee emphasises, is that many of these women are brought here legally. “Those we interviewed from ASEAN nations enter Singapore with a social visit pass that is valid for 30 days,” she says. “Many of these women and young girls are offered jobs as waitresses, cooks, or hostesses (with no mention of sex) but as soon as they land here, they are brought to Geylang and told their jobs are to stand on the street and sell themselves.” The women who refuse to do so are told they could leave when they repaid a debt of about $2,000, an amount that these women could not afford.
Yet, this isn’t the most harrowing detail of their ordeal. According to Lee, the number of men these women have to sleep with to repay their debt ranges between 100 and 150. All this within the span of one month. Only after they have repaid their debt by bedding this ridiculous number of men are they allowed to keep a meagre portion of their earnings. Lee also mentions that while these women are working off their debt, they are only given $10 a day for food – if they work.
Siddharth Kara, an expert on modern slavery, published a book in 2009 titled Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery in which he described how a young woman was trafficked into Singapore from a village in Chiang Rai.
Lisu, then 22, was put on a bus with 35 other young women who believed they were coming here to work as cleaning ladies. When they arrived, however, they were given tiny skirts and tops to wear, denied underwear, and told they had to “make sex with clients each night”. The women naturally refused. To force them to comply, the traffickers locked them up in a room for two days without food, only offering them some on the third night if they agreed to work. With no recourse and pushed by the need to survive, they eventually relented. Lisu and the others found themselves having to service men in brick-walled cubicles in the forest from 8pm till 2am daily. Lisu trembled as she recounted her story to Kara, finally telling him, “I wish I could help poor people have a better life so they will not be treated this way”.
When I spoke to Kara for this story, he tells me that sex trafficking has changed since he published his book, but not for the better. “Sex traffickers have become more sophisticated in recent years because of the wave of anti-trafficking awareness sweeping the globe, utilising new means to recruit victims, such as the Internet and mobile phones.” he says. “They focus on disaster areas (natural, environmental or war), because they know that such catastrophes force people into distress migration. They swoop in at the desperate hour to recruit women and men, often into forced labor or forced prostitution.” As unimaginable as that may seem, this is the current state of human trafficking.
To understand why slavery persists, we have to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. “As a civilisation, we agreed centuries ago that slavery is morally unacceptable. We no longer have to convince people that slavery shouldn’t exist, as did the original abolitionists back in the late 1700s,” Kara explains.
“However, slavery continues to permeate our global economy due to numerous reasons, including the globalisation of competition, which motivates producers to seek out under-regulated labour markets to cut labour costs, often accomplished through severe labour exploitation or outright slavery,” he adds.
Kara points out that, in order to stay price-competitive, retailers and manufacturers try to reduce the costs of the most pliable component of their businesses, which is labour. The more unscrupulous retailers deal with this by stripping it completely, making poor and disaster stricken people pay for it instead with their very lives. Sadly, this is how we end up with industries that are rife with forced or bonded labour.
According to Kara, what most people don’t know about bonded labour, or “debt bondage” as it is also called, is that this type of slavery “ensnares more people than all the other forms combined”. By the end of 2012, The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that there were almost 21 million victims of forced labour worldwide, with roughly 84 to 88 per cent of this figure coming from South Asia.
To give you a better idea of how bad the problem is, Kara estimates that 1.1 per cent of the entire population in South Asia is entangled in bonded labour.
Both Lee and Kara agree that the world needs to know that bonded labour touches their lives every day. A lot of the products we use and consume, like clothes, cell phones, coffee and even seafood have been generated through bonded labour at some point in the supply chain.
Last year, the Associated Press (AP) reported that it “found enslaved workers who were forced to peel shrimp in Thailand for up to 16 hours a day for little or no pay”. These workers were also locked up for months or even years on end.
Not surprisingly, US customs records show the shrimp ending up in supply chains of many major US stores like Wal-Mart and restaurants like Red Lobster. As investigations continued, Thai Union, a major seafood supplier, admitted that it “had not been aware of the source of all its shrimp”, and promised to make changes. The company has since terminated dealings with those suppliers over labour and human trafficking violations, but many organisations still question if it has really done enough.
An integral part of combating this issue is understanding how victims fall into the trap of bonded labour. More often than not, this occurs when poverty-stricken workers accept credit from their employers and pledge their labour to repay the debt. As Kara explains in his book, Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia, the severe imbalance of power between the parties often results in the exploitation of labourers. Extremely low wages, exorbitant interest rates for loans, and endless wage deductions (for food, water, lodging etc.) are several tactics conniving employers use to ensnare their workers in an endless cycle of debt. In instances where labourers are no longer able to work, their debts are transferred to their children.
Kara recalls meeting an elderly man in India who had been enslaved for decades after taking out a loan of Rs800 ($16) for his wedding. Nearing the end of his life, the defeated man accepted the fact that the burden of his debt will be borne by his sons. “My life is almost over. I wait only for the end. No one in this country cares for us. We live and die, and no one but ourselves knows we have drawn breath.”
Fahrina, the victim who was trafficked from Bangladesh to Singapore, turned out to be one of the lucky ones. While her pimp was distracted, she managed to escape and seek help from passers-by. She was then brought to a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), called Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). It was able to provide her with assistance to get her life back. Not many victims of sex trafficking get such an opportunity.
Where government efforts are concerned, the US Department of State’s Trafficking-in-Persons Report 2016 states “the Government of Singapore does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so”. So while we have some way to go, it is comforting to know that progress is being made on the governmental level.
As individuals, it may seem like there isn’t much that we can do, but activists like Lee and Kara disagree. If you truly believe that freedom is the right of every man, woman and child, get educated about the prevalence of modern-day slavery, especially how it directly affects you.
You can start by completing a survey on slaveryfootprint.org to see how many slaves “work for you” based on the products and services you buy. The number will astound you, considering that even one slave is too many. If you’re interested in lending a hand to the cause, local NGOs like TWC2 and Emancipasia are always looking for volunteers. As Edmund Burke once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of AUGUSTMAN.
Images: Getty Images