On July 5, Malaysia announced it would increase supervision of its labor operations in response to international condemnation of its forced labor practices. Such supervision will likely include contract review with workers and evaluation of the recruitment fees currently being charged to employees. In its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the United States cited labor trafficking as “the predominant human trafficking crime in the country.”
It defined labor trafficking as “the range of activities involved when a person uses force, fraud, or coercion to obtain the labor or services of another person.” Ultimately, Malaysia’s engagement in such activities provided the basis for Malaysia to be categorized as—and downsized to—a “Tier 3” country, indicating that it has “[failed] to comply with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking or make significant efforts to comply,” according to Reuters.
Reuters has reported that, “Malaysia depends on about two million documented migrant workers from countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and India” in order to meet the demands of its economy. These workers are often able to find employment in Malaysia through paying fees to recruitment officers, who act as middlemen in the employment process. As a result, many migrants risk being taken advantage of through “debt bondage,” where the officer maintains a sense of control over the worker’s life throughout the often unclear repayment process.
Yet, Malaysia’s worsened ranking could further hurt its economy by limiting its qualifications for aid from the United States. Additionally, Reuters has reported that, “the United States has imposed import bans on three Malaysian companies over allegations of forced labour in their operations” in the past year, all of which have claimed to have addressed and resolved the issues.
In response to the vast amount of allegations it has received, Malaysia has taken steps to investigate the complaints. In addition, according to the Washington Post, “the government has set up a mobile application called Working for Workers since May to allow foreign workers to make direct complaints to labor offices.” However, in contrast to the 4,636 complaints it has received since the app’s release, the government has only investigated 3,502 of them.
Furthermore, while the Malaysian Human Resources Ministry has vowed to continue to investigate risks of exploitation and work toward a more extensive national plan later this year, no other concrete or new initiatives have been promised. According to Malaysia’s National Human Rights Commission, the failure to do more is largely due to a lack of “transparency, law enforcement capacity and stronger labour laws.”
Such practices are not only harmful to the individuals who fall victim to the system but also to the economic and societal effects they perpetuate. By continuing to enable a system of worker exploitation and prioritizing the profits of employers and recruitment officers, the Malaysian government sends a message that profit is more important to the government than the welfare of human lives. As a result, the Malaysian population may develop a growing sentiment of distrust toward the state and doubt its endeavors to aid them.
In addition, this pattern will likely have longstanding economic impacts on both the individual’s financial status and the country’s economy as a whole. Due to Malaysia’s human rights violations, the United States has already demonstrated that they will boycott Malaysian products should they feel human rights are being threatened in the process, and many other countries are likely to follow suit in an effort to condemn the actions and express international disapproval. Besides boycotts, it is possible countries could also impose economic sanctions on Malaysia, despite their harmful effects on the working class. These measures would further hurt the national economy as well as the daily lives of Malaysian workers, who would bear the brunt of the sanctions’ impacts.
Clearly the efforts Malaysia has initiated are not enough. While the government has acknowledged the potential for improvements to be made (though many officials continue to remain complacent or deny the existence of a problem altogether), they have implemented new little measures to ensure misconduct is thoroughly addressed. Although the new mobile application has succeeded in making strides in reporting cases of trafficking, it does not close the disparity between reported cases and cases that are actually investigated, nor does it assure appropriate action will be taken.
Furthermore, while many cases are looked into, they are often investigated by Malaysian officials, who could have economic or political stake in the issue and may therefore be inclined to act according to their expected position. Finally, despite numerous statements declaring Malaysia’s intent to improve conditions, these sentiments are often vague, overgeneralized, and lacking new strategies that would generate significant change—all of which directly contradict Malaysia’s supposed mission to improve conditions swiftly and effectively.
To better address this crisis, Malaysia must create incentives for companies and recruitment officers to avoid labor exploitation and implement detailed plans — rather than vague intentions — to amend such violations. For instance, Malaysia could offer tax breaks to employers in exchange for waiving or paying off their employees’ recruitment fees. Similarly, they could set up funding pools that recruitment officers can access for any resources needed to help with employee arrangements, eliminating the need for migrants to pay fees to the officers and ultimately investing in future employees for Malaysia in the process.
Doing so would help lessen the financial burden of migrant workers, limit the exploitation of labor, and diminish the strained relationship between recruitment officer and employee. Additionally, because many people use the role of recruitment officers in order to gain access to the country and its resources, Malaysia could implement new pathways to citizenship that do not rely on the need for a middleman. If the government offered alternate opportunities for work visas or employment and education training, migrant workers would likely have a higher quality of life, be more supported throughout the transition process, be more prepared for future plans and investments, and develop skills that could contribute back to the economy.
Furthermore, in order to limit corruption or biased evaluations of the flawed system, it would be beneficial to have a neutral system of accountability for the labor force. Because many workers who are being primarily affected are migrants to Malaysia, it could be a conflict of interest to have a monitor from Malaysia or the workers’ home countries. Therefore, I propose a team of members from the international community, such as through the United Nations International Labour Organization, be assigned to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation of any reported companies.
According to the Washington Post, “employers will now have to pay for social security for all domestic helpers,” which is certainly a positive step in achieving fair workers’ rights in Malaysia. With the promise of a more comprehensive plan later this year, it seems as though progress is indeed being made, though perhaps not at a pace progressive enough to enact immediate or meaningful change. Ultimately, Malaysian government officials will be the determinant of if the country will enable such reforms or if they will continue to be complacent in a system that undermines the value of its people and contributes to further exploitation and trafficking.
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