Combating human trafficking is a Malaysian challenge

Josh Hong

An abandoned camp where police found mass graves in Wang Kelian, Perlis, in 2015. The site is an alleged human-trafficking camp, with the bodies mostly those of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants. Malaysia was downgraded to a Tier 3 in the recent United States Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. – EPA pic, July 5, 2021.

IN the latest United States State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, Malaysia has been downgraded to Tier 3, meaning the country “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so”. This is the first time Malaysia has fallen into the lowest tier since 2014.

That Malaysia is a transit as well as destination country for human trafficking is no secret, and there is a daunting task ahead in addressing it. 

According to the Global Slavery Index 2018 up to 40 million people were estimated to be living in modern slavery, among whom 212,000 were in Malaysia, translating into nearly seven persons out of 1000. Many of them were also victims of forced labour and this has been confirmed in the US State Department human trafficking report.

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children of 2000 (popularly known as the Palermo Protocol) defines trafficking in persons as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability or the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

“Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others, or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”.

While not a developed country, Malaysia is rich in natural resources and blessed with a vibrant economy. However, the failure in economic transformation over the two decades means that many of our industries remain labour-intensive, such as plantation, manufacturing and construction, to name but a few.

These sectors are in constant need of labour force, yet the jobs that they offer are, more often than not, dirty, difficult, dangerous and low-wage, and are therefore shunned by locals who are naturally more interested in a supervisory or management role that would be commensurate with their skills. (Managerial positions also come with stricter conditions which make it more difficult for foreigners to apply for, but that is another story.)

Hence, the labour-intensive nature of Malaysian industries invariably attracts large numbers of nationals from lower-income countries. 

Malaysians tend to see migrant workers living in our midst as “low-skilled labour”, which to me is a misnomer, for they should right and properly be called “low-wage workers” because the meagre earnings that they receive are simply disproportionate to the hardships that they endure and the dangers that they face on a daily basis, not to mention the skills that are required to complete the tasks assigned to them.

I, for one, would not know how to walk on a scaffolding while painting a building. To call a job as such “low-skilled” is nothing but rubbing salt into the wound.

What compounds the already precarious situation of migrant workers in Malaysia are the complex procedures and high costs involved in recruiting them, with various unspecified fees thrown in, prompting many employers, unable to follow through the entire process due to the pressing need for workers, to opt for a middleperson.

This has resulted in large numbers of foreigners who were brought into Malaysia to perform jobs that did not match what they had been promised and hence ended up as double victims of human trafficking and forced labour.

Needless to say, Malaysia’s economic prosperity also gave rise to thriving entertainment and leisure businesses, up until the Covid-19 pandemic hit globally at least, as a consequence of which many women (and men to a much lesser extent) were trafficked from neighbouring countries to work in the sex industry in Malaysia.

It is not that Malaysia has not made any progress in countering human trafficking. In 2010, for instance, the then Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein came up with the National Action Plan on Anti-Trafficking in Persons, which continues to be in force and enhanced, with the latest version having been launched in March this year.

During Najib Razak’s tenure as prime minister, Malaysia made significant changes to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Act by reforming its victim protection system to allow all trafficking victims – including foreign nationals – with a protection order to work and to move freely, pending a medical screening and risk assessment.

Still, the reform initiatives are not far-reaching enough, as investigations have not been thoroughly carried out while the conviction rates remain relatively low despite having gone up slightly in recent months.

The shocking conditions of migrant workers in plantation and manufacturing sectors, such as those of Top Glove and FGV Holdings, have also contributed to the negative perception of Malaysia globally as far as human trafficking is concerned.

Now that Malaysia again finds itself in Tier 3 of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons report, the US government may be obliged to impose further sanctions on Malaysia’s export industries, which could trigger a knock-on effect as other countries might follow suit. Canada has already begun its own investigations into forced labour allegations involving Malaysian companies, while the European Union is watching closely.

So long as Malaysian industries continue to be labour-intensive and reliant on migrant labour, the local enterprises will face the risk of international sanctions. It is a harsh and unpalatable reality that could have severe impacts on the Malaysian economy in the not-too-distant future.

If anything, the days of Malaysia relying on the exploitation of cheap migrant labour are numbered, and it is high time that all sectors – from the government to the businesses – ponder on how best to reform and transform our national economy. Scaling up our efforts to combat human trafficking vigorously will be a first step in the right direction. – July 5, 2021.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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