TIP upgrade no cause for celebration just yet


Free Malaysia Today

From Glorene A Das

It has been a week since the release of the US TIP Report 2024. After careful consideration, Tenaganita believes that while the upgrade is a step in the right direction, it is not yet a cause for celebration.

Malaysia’s upgrade to Tier 2 in the US state department’s 2024 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report is being hailed as a significant victory in the fight against human trafficking and forced labour.

This elevation is viewed by some as a testament to Malaysia’s commitment to combating these issues, with claims that “the move to Tier 2 shows that Malaysia does not use forced labour” and that elements of forced labour do not exist, while the home minister anticipates positive impacts on Malaysian businesses following the upgrade in the US Trafficking ranking for 2024.

However, a closer examination of the report reveals substantial concerns and calls for a more measured response. The report opens with a critical caveat: “The government of Malaysia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.”

While Malaysia has made strides in increasing trafficking investigations, convicting more traffickers and enhancing public awareness, the impact remains limited.

With 157 trafficking convictions, 19 cases of passport withholding and three convictions of employment agencies, these numbers appear insignificant compared with reported cases, raising doubts about their statistical significance and meaningful progress.

Moreover, despite identifying more potential victims, the government recognised fewer confirmed victims and prosecuted fewer traffickers, notably overlooking critical sectors like palm oil and disposable glove manufacturing known for labour exploitation.

The report underscores official complicity and corruption as critical systemic issues undermine anti-trafficking efforts. This allows traffickers to operate with impunity and heightens migrant workers’ vulnerability to trafficking.

Compounding the problem, officials frequently misinterpret trafficking, confusing it with migrant smuggling, which leads to inadequate victim protection.

Additionally, the government’s inconsistent approach to restitution further hampers efforts, with only 10 cases involving labour trafficking victims seeing restitution requests, and none for sex trafficking victims. Labour trafficking victims often face challenges in seeking compensation through civil suits.

While the government granted full protection orders to all certified victims and provided housing in government-operated or funded shelters, the number of certified victims remains painfully small, likely due to officials’ misunderstandings of trafficking definitions.

The government’s efforts to prevent trafficking through public awareness campaigns appear ineffective, as evidenced by poorly trained hotline operators and a mere three investigations initiated from hotline reports.

Moreover, the government’s negotiation of new bilateral MoUs on migrant worker recruitment lacks transparency, with these agreements not made public and, therefore, not open to scrutiny.

Domestic workers, a sector significantly plagued by trafficking and forced labour, are excluded from critical protections under the Employment Act 1955, such as maximum working hours and minimum wage. This exclusion leaves them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

The report also glosses over the plight of at least 250,000 migrant workers in Malaysia who entered the country with valid papers but are now jobless and living in deplorable conditions due to employers’ failure to obtain work permits.

These migrants become undocumented after one month and face detention during mass immigration crackdowns, making it likely that many detainees in immigration camps are trafficking victims.

Further to that, the continued use of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) to curb human trafficking is troubling. Sosma precludes an open, fair trial and is used against alleged traffickers, raising concerns about justice and human rights.

While the US state department’s upgrade to Tier 2 acknowledges Malaysia’s efforts, significant gaps remain. Malaysia should not be deluded into believing that this upgrade signifies substantial progress. Instead, the TIP report highlights critical areas for improvement.

Enhancing training for officials is crucial to accurately identify trafficking victims, ensuring they receive protection and are not further victimised.

New legislation for domestic workers should be implemented to guarantee they receive the same protection as other workers. Ensuring that victims can easily obtain compensation without the need for protracted civil suits is essential.

Increasing transparency by making bilateral MoUs public would allow for scrutiny and accountability. Officials must be comprehensively trained to differentiate between human trafficking and migrant smuggling.

The rise in investigations and convictions is a positive sign, but the lack of prosecution of traffickers weakens the collective efforts to fight trafficking effectively. Prosecuting the main traffickers rather than low-level transporters should be a priority.

Strengthening the quota system and regulating recruitment practices can prevent exploitation. The process of granting work permits to trafficking victims needs to be expedited to offer them timely protection.

Screening asylum seekers and refugees thoroughly to identify and protect trafficking victims is necessary. Adopting a trauma-informed and victim-centred approach would provide comprehensive services and support to trafficking victims.

Malaysia must develop its own strong strategies and rely on its own resources, moral compass and expertise through lived experiences to drive meaningful change, rather than solely depending on external evaluations. - FMT

Glorene A Das is the executive director of Tenaganita.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

TIP upgrade no cause for celebration just yet