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Malaysia home to modern-day slavery of the worst kind

November 10, 2014

It is time we seriously rethink migrant labour management in the country that has fallen to shocking levels.


By Charles Santiago

slave 300There is a taste, a smell to freedom. You and I enjoy it. Many don’t. An estimated 20 to 27 million people are believed to live in slavery around the world.

And many of these cases are happening in Malaysia.

Lokesh Sapaliga, an Indian national’s horrifying experience in a Sarawak factory is the latest case of modern day slavery here.

Sapaliga worked in sub-human conditions, was forced to eat rotting food and paid a little over twenty ringgit for a 14-20 hour workday.

An Indian agent in Mumbai collaborated with a sub-agent in Malaysia, who sent him to work in an oil palm factory after promising a lucrative job at an oil rig.

He managed to escape and secretly took pictures of the working and living conditions.

This story is shocking but it’s nothing new. We have heard and seen similar or worse stories over the years.

Malaysia has an obligation to abide by the five out of eight core International Labour Organisation’s conventions, which it has ratified.

But prosecution for forced labor trafficking is rare in Malaysia. Between 2012 and August 2013, there were a total of 120 cases brought under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, but resulted only in 23 convictions.

The government has to ensure perpetrators are prosecuted and victims are not treated as offenders. Victims must have access to competent judicial channels in order to obtain redress in cases of abuse and exploitation.

Malaysia must stop further criminalising migrant workers. The government doesn’t care two hoots about the switching of employment contracts upon arrival and an estimated 90 per cent of local employers retain the passports of migrant workers.

These workers are afraid to report abuse or even request information concerning labor rights. Migrant workers who leave their employer due to abuse become undocumented workers, subject to deportation.

Malaysia must also look at ILO’s feedback suggesting Putrajaya drafts a bill to tighten the regulation of private employment agencies. The ILO also recommended the draft bill be extended to cover outsourcing agencies.

The ILO estimates some 150 billion dollars (480 billion ringgit) in profits are generated annually for private businesses from trafficking, of which 99 billion dollars (317 billion ringgit) goes to the sex industry.

And Malaysia seems to be playing a big role.

Verité’s, an international labour rights group’s two-year study of labour conditions in electronics manufacturing in Malaysia, found that one in three foreign workers surveyed was in a condition of forced labour.

According to their report, virtually every device on the market today may have come in contact with modern-day slavery because many of the most recognisable brands source components of their products from Malaysia.

Verité’s study says the widespread reliance on third-party agents for the recruitment, management and employment of foreign workers limit their protections and blur accountability for labour conditions.

All these elements trap people like Sapaliga as bonded labourers in Malaysia.

This is a serious problem, which the UMNO-led government is very aware of but does very little about.

After years of warnings, the United States recently downgraded Malaysia to Tier 3 in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, after the country ignored warnings to draw up a plan to comply with “the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking”.

Despite the gravity of the problem, we have only seen scorn and complacency from ruling party leaders.

It’s this attitude that has pushed Malaysia to the lowest ranking, which could mean less funding or prompt Washington to withhold or withdraw assistance that is unrelated to trade or humanitarian aid.

Frederick Douglas, a former slave and abolitionist leader said, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

This seems to be true in Malaysia’s case.

Charles Santiago is the Member of Parliament for Klang


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