Did Malaysia merit its human trafficking upgrade?

Abdul Hakim in the Rohingya community in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur where he found shelter at the end of May 2015 after escaping a jungle camp run by human traffickers
(Mahi Ramakrishnan/IRIN)

A week ago, 45-year-old Mimi was trapped in a private house, working 20 hours a day, worrying she’d be beaten for the most trivial mistake and barred by her Malaysian employer from calling her family back home in Indonesia.

Her husband feared she was dead and came to Malaysia to find out what had happened to her.

“I was doing everything,” Mimi explained to IRIN at the offices of Tenaganita, a Kuala Lumpur-based NGO that campaigns for the rights of migrant workers and initiated her rescue. “Cleaning the car, cleaning the kitchen, cooking, mopping the floor, looking after the children… If I did anything wrong my employer would hit me,” Mimi said, mimicking her employer gripping a belt and raising her hand.

In one year, Mimi earned just 500 ringgit (US$130). Her hands are blistered; her nails thickened and discoloured from cleaning chemicals.

Migrant workers, thought to number as many as four million – half of them undocumented – are the backbone of the Malaysian economy. While most travel to Malaysia willingly, experts warn the type of semi-skilled and low-paid jobs that many of them do leaves them vulnerable to abuse and at risk from traffickers. 

Malaysian and international NGOs have been campaigning for years to get the country to do more to curb human trafficking, using the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report, which ranks 188 countries on their commitment to tackling the issue, to push for change. Many have expressed shock following the release of the latest TiP report on Monday, which saw Malaysia being upgraded from Tier 3, the lowest level, where it had been placed in 2014, to the Tier 2 Watch List.  

It's very clear that Malaysia has done very, very few actions towards curbing human trafficking in the past year.

“It’s very clear that Malaysia has done very, very few actions towards curbing human trafficking in the past year,” said Glorene Das, a director at Tenaganita, which exposed trafficking networks operating near Malaysia’s border with Thailand long before police discovered 28 abandoned trafficking camps containing 139 graves in the same area in May this year. “You can see that very clearly in the lack of prosecutions of traffickers and [government] agencies that are thought to be involved. There is no transparency.”

Malaysia’s upgrade comes as President Barack Obama steps up efforts to conclude the 12-country free trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Tier 3 nations would be ineligible to join. Thailand, which isn’t part of the TPP, remains on the list of Tier 3 offenders.

“It’s a political decision,” said Benjamin Zawacki, a visiting fellow at Harvard University. “Obama just got fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Malaysia is one of the countries in the region that has signed on [to that agreement]; it was in on the ground floor. If Obama hadn’t got this free trade agreement maybe it would have been a different story, but he can’t have a partnership with only a handful of countries. The TPP is an outgoing president needing to solidify his legacy in his last year in power.”

The US State Department’s report said that although Malaysia didn’t meet its minimum standards to tackle human trafficking it was making “significant” attempts to do so. 

It noted that the government had drafted amended legislation that allowed those rescued from trafficking and forced labour situations to move around freely and to work (previously they were sent to government-run shelters and not allowed out to work while their cases went through the courts). The amendments were passed in June but are currently awaiting royal assent.

The report also highlighted that there had been only three convictions of traffickers during the reporting period, which ended in March. Figures provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs to IRIN showed there was just one conviction in the 2014 calendar year – the lowest number since at least 2008.  

In a statement, Home Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi welcomed the upgrade as “recognition of Malaysia’s ongoing efforts and commitments in combatting this heinous crime.” Hamidi stressed the government was also determined to tackle labour exploitation and forced labour, particularly in the electronics industry, where at least one in every three foreign workers was found to be in a situation of forced labour by a study released last September.  

Malaysia’s electronics industry is also on the US Department of Labour’s “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” along with textiles and palm oil, one of Malaysia’s biggest exports.

“We don’t see anything on the ground that would warrant an upgrade,” Dan Viederman, chief executive of Verité, which carried out the September report on the electronics industry, told IRIN. “No matter whether Malaysia is in Tier 2 or Tier 3, the private sector needs to see Malaysia as a highly risky place to produce goods. Forced labour is endemic.”

The State Department’s decision to upgrade Malaysia in the TiP report came despite opposition from nearly 180 congressional representatives and senators. Malaysia, they said, had “earned” its position on Tier 3, alongside countries doing little or nothing to curb the trade in people.

Tenaganita, in a statement following the upgrade, noted that few of the 2014 report’s 14 recommendations, including intensifying efforts to catch and punish public officials profiting from trafficking or exploiting victims, had been implemented. Employers continue to confiscate their workers’ passports and there is very little legal protection for the estimated half a million people – mainly foreign women like Mimi – who work in private homes. Indeed, a ban on workers going to Malaysia introduced by Cambodia in 2010 after a number of its citizens died – one of them from starvation – remains in force. 
 
Now in a safe house, Mimi is recovering from her ordeal and looking forward to returning home to her village in central Java. “I’m so happy to be here,” she says, visibly relieved. “I really suffered.”

km/ks/ag

 
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