ISSUES relating to migrants have been in the news since the 1970s, when the country's economic development created a growing demand for workers, which began to attract plane- and ferry-loads of people from neighbouring countries looking for a better life on our shores.
Today, the migrant population in Malaysia is around two million documented and 1.9 million undocumented workers, according to the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2011. This report is described on the State Department's website as "the world's most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts". The 2011 Report surveys 184 countries, including the US.
In the report, the State Department places each country in one of three tiers based on the extent of their governments' efforts to comply with the "minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking" as described in the US' Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). For the second consecutive year, Malaysia was placed in the Tier 2 Watch List, facing a possible downgrade to Tier 3, the category for countries that do not fully comply with the minimum standards under the TVPA and are not making significant efforts to do so.
On two occasions, in 2007 and 2009, Malaysia was placed in Tier 3. However, it enacted the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007 and opened shelters for victims of human trafficking. This resulted in the country's elevation to the Tier 2 Watch List in 2008. However, in 2009, Malaysia fell again to Tier 3, leading the government to draft a national plan of action to address human trafficking.
The 2011 report notes that the government still does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so.
Human trafficking covers a range of activities in which one person holds another in forced service, the report states. These include forced labour, sex trafficking, bonded labour, debt bondage, involuntary domestic servitude and forced child labour. In truth, these are various forms of modern day slavery.
Anyone who needs confirmation that significant numbers of victims of human trafficking exist in Malaysia can read the current TIP Report or a range of other documents available online that discuss the problem.
The crux of the matter is the unpalatable truth that too few Malaysians are concerned enough to make their feelings known that many migrants are being denied their human rights. If more people would do so, our leaders would surely take notice and press for better protection for these workers.
It is as simple as that. The TIP Report would then have far less reason to make statements like these:
"Many migrant workers in plantations, construction sites, textile factories and employed as domestic workers throughout Malaysia are subject to practices indicative of trafficking such as restrictions on movement, deceit and fraud in wages, passport confiscation or debt bondage at the hands of agents or employers. Passport confiscation is widespread, and there were reports that employers also opened joint bank accounts as a form of control on workers."
If Malaysians do not tolerate such treatment from their employers, by what rationale do we allow migrant workers to be subject to such conditions? This is a question that we as a society need to ask ourselves. The answer would partly explain why neighbouring countries have repeatedly banned their citizens from coming to work in Malaysia.
Sadly, the situations described so far are somewhat milder than some of the abuses that migrant workers are subjected to. To quote the TIP Report:
"Many Malaysian labour outsourcing companies recruit excess workers from Bangladesh, Vietnam and other countries, who are then often held in warehouses or other locations and handed over to unscrupulous employers, who subject them to conditions of forced labour."
Exploitation comes in various forms. Some employers reportedly did not pay their foreign domestic workers three to six months' wages in order to recoup recruitment agency fees and other debt-bonds charged to employers, the report states. In some cases, employers illegally withheld employee wages in escrow until completion of the contract, forcing workers to continue working for fear of not receiving their pay if they stop.
Unfortunately, it gets much worse for others, sometimes involving public institutions. During the report period, the RELA volunteer corps continued to conduct raids targeting illegal migrant communities and detained refugees, asylum seekers and trafficking victims along with allegedly illegal migrants, though this practice had reportedly decreased compared to previous years.
The report notes further that while the number of convictions under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act increased and public awareness efforts on trafficking continued, the government did not effectively investigate and prosecute labour trafficking cases, and failed to address its own complicity in trafficking as well as the lack of effective victim care and counselling by authorities. Many serious concerns remained regarding trafficking in Malaysia, including the detention of trafficking victims in government facilities, it said.
Moreover, while the network involved in the trafficking of Myanmar nationals to Thailand was believed to be substantial, this was not reflected in the record of prosecutions. The acquittal rate of alleged trafficking offenders was high, which observers attributed to the lack of adequate victim-witness protection and poor judicial training on human trafficking.
These issues are merely one part of the complicated web of human trafficking that has merged into the fabric of Malaysian society. The misery that it causes for the most vulnerable victims of this underground economic activity is nothing short of harrowing. It has also been documented well enough to satisfy the most sceptical of critics.
The thought that large numbers of migrant workers in our midst are subject to such oppression ought to move us to change the way they are treated. At the very least, it should be robbing us of our sleep.
R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge. This story appeared in The Edge on May 21, 2012.