Are you a human trafficker?

  • Business
  • Saturday, 07 Jan 2017

  • Optimistically cautious

OUR businessman would be offended if anybody associated them with human trafficking. Who needs that when they have enough headaches as it is dealing with potentially crippling issues such as rising labour costs and the red tape in the hiring of foreign workers? And now there’s this New Year’s Day policy change that will make things harder for those who rely on foreign workers.

But wait, what if all these are interlinked? What if the newly introduced Employer Mandatory Commitment (EMC) is part of the Government’s plan to strengthen Malaysia’s position in the global war against human trafficking?

Should the employers ignore the big picture and focus only on profit margins and ease of doing business? And how does the Government strike a balance between domestic demands and international obligations? Can doing the right thing feels so wrong for so many people?

These are tough questions and there are no easy answers. Or at least, there are no answers that will please everybody.

But there’s no getting around this matter.

Resolve it we must, and it starts with better knowledge.

When announcing that the EMC would come into force on Jan 1, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also Home Minister, explained that it was to ensure that employers are fully responsible for the foreign workers on their payrolls, from the application stage right up to the point when the workers are sent home.

The item in this EMC initiative that gets the most attention is the ruling that employers can no longer deduct levy payments from the foreign workers’ salaries.

Naturally, businesses are upset that they are suddenly burdened with an additional cost.

For those industries that depend heavily on imported unskilled labour, bearing the levy may make a substantial dent in their competitiveness.

And there’s more. The EMC also includes a review of the deposits collected from employers when they bring in foreign workers.

Chances are there’ll be a hike, judging from Zahid’s statement that the current deposit rate is too low and thus ineffective in ensuring that employers send home the workers.

The Government also requires employers to adhere to guidelines on minimum standards for foreign workers’ accommodation, which include these workers having accommodation provided by the employers.

And soon, there’ll be a written undertaking that sets out the obligations and conditions that apply to employers of foreign workers.

Businesses are unhappy that there had been no meaningful dialogue between the authorities and the private sector prior to the implementation of the EMC.

It’s appropriate that stakeholders give input before important policy decisions.

If there had been no consultation before the EMC was formulated, it leads to questions about transparency and the level of engagement. In any case, the industry bodies and business chambers are making their views known to the Government.

On the other hand, the Government has stated its reasons for coming up with the EMC.

In his media release, Zahid made it a point to highlight the fact that the hiring of foreign workers is a privilege extended by the Government in response to industrial needs and in support of the nation’s economic growth.

However, he added, some employers ignored the rules.

They paid their foreign workers less than the minimum wage.

They also restricted the workers’ movement and held their passports.

He said when employers refused to do anything after foreign workers had run away, leaving it solely to the authorities to trace and send back those workers, this created opportunities for human trafficking.

Here is when we must properly grasp the meaning of human trafficking. For that, we should turn to the US State Department.

According to the department, trafficking in persons includes “all of the criminal conduct involved in forced labour and sex trafficking, essentially the conduct involved in reducing or holding someone in compelled service”.

It also refers to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

Under the Act and consistent with the Protocol, says the department, “individuals may be trafficking victims regardless of whether they once consented, participated in a crime as a direct result of being trafficked, were transported into the exploitative situation, or were simply born into a state of servitude”.

“Despite a term that seems to connote movement, at the heart of the phenomenon of trafficking in persons are the many forms of enslavement, not the activities involved in international transportation,” adds the department.

Most of us are likely to think that enslavement is rare in Malaysia. But would we still see it that way if we look at how the US State Department explains what it calls “debt bondage among migrant labourers”?

“Abuses of contracts and hazardous conditions of employment for migrant labourers do not necessarily constitute human trafficking. However, the burden of illegal costs and debts on these labourers in the source country, often with the support of labour agencies and employers in the destination country, can contribute to a situation of debt bondage,” says the department.

And here’s what the department says about forced labour: “Also known as involuntary servitude, forced labour may result when unscrupulous employers exploit workers made more vulnerable by high rates of unemployment, poverty, crime, discrimination, corruption, political conflict, or even cultural acceptance of the practice. Immigrants are particularly vulnerable, but individuals also may be forced into labour in their own countries.”

It is significant that the Act and the Protocol are mentioned. Malaysia is a signatory to the Protocol.

And the Act’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking is the basis for the department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TiP) Report, which sorts countries into four tiers based on how hard their governments fight forced labour and sex trafficking.

Malaysia is on the Tier 2 Watch List, which is just above the bottom tier. Our aim is to be on Tier 1 by 2020.

The ranking matters because the US Government wields the TiP Report as a diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking.

In August, Zahid launched a five-year national action plan to combat human trafficking. And in November, he said Tier 1 status could expedite the approval for the application for Malaysians to have visa-free entry to the United States.

It should be noted that the latest TiP report recommends, among other things, that Malaysia ensures that employers are responsible for government-imposed fees and that the law prohibiting employers from retaining passports without employees’ consent is enforced.

It appears that the EMC is part of the road map to get Malaysia to Tier 1.

Eliminating human trafficking is the right thing to aim for. It calls for a rethink on how we employ and treat foreign workers. Business as usual doesn’t seem possible anymore.

Executive editor Errol Oh thinks reaching Tier 1 status is a lofty but admirable goal.

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