The misery of modern slavery

  • Along The Watchtower
  • Wednesday, 08 Jul 2020

It’s a growing concern that Malaysia is on Tier 2 watchlist of the Trafficking in Persons Report for the third consecutive year for its failure to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking of foreign workers.

ANTI-racism protests, which started in the United States with the police killing of George Floyd, have spread to Europe and other parts of the world, and monuments linked to colonialism and slavery are being toppled or defaced in the name of racial justice.

Will the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests arouse significant changes in the mindsets of people like the historic Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 or the Berlin Wall protests in 1989 did? It is still too early to say.

What does racism mean? Dictionaries define it as prejudice, discrimination or antagonism against a person or people on the basis of their race or ethnicity. It is the bigoted belief that different races have specific characteristics or qualities to distinguish them as inferior or superior to another.

As for slavery, it used to epitomise the brutal system of owning people as slaves, like in the early days of the US when Africans were captured and taken to America to work in plantations owned by white people.

Slavery can be traced to the earliest of histories, from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome to Mayan and Aztec empires.

It may not be palpable, but slavery still exists today. Its modern form is the severe exploitation of human beings for commercial gain, the tragic condition of being forced to toil hard for others, often in appalling conditions and very little pay.

Around the world, 40.3 million people are trapped in such slavery. They work in industries that are highly dependent on manual labour, such as farms, timber logging camps, mines and fishing vessels and also as domestic maids and kitchen helpers.

More shockingly, based on the estimates of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), more than half of the victims are sex slaves under forced prostitution.

Many of these people are snared by sheer desperation to escape poverty and support their families.

In addition to incurring ineluctable debt, they are at the mercy of their exploiters. In most cases, their passports are held by employers and they live with the threat of deportation.

What’s the link between modern slavery and human trafficking?

Trafficking involves the recruitment, transport, transfer and harbouring of people through threat or use of abduction, force, coercion, fraud, abuse of power or vulnerability for the purpose of exploitation, including sexual exploitation and forced labour.

This widespread crime is a highly lucrative business, generating US$150bil (RM642.5 bil) a year, and Malaysia is part of the dastardly trade.

We are on the “Tier 2” Watchlist of the US’ Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) report released by the US State Department on June 25,2020 – for the third consecutive year.

The tier rankings are based on an assessment of a country’s efforts to prevent trafficking in persons, prosecute traffickers and to protect survivors of trafficking through a combination of legislative acts, collaboration with civil society, funding and other proactive measures to identify and protect victims of trafficking.

According to the report, the Malaysian government did not fully meet the minimum standards last year despite making efforts to do so.

Malaysia’s position on Tier 2 reflects the government’s lack of political will to collectively, systematically and holistically combat modern-day slavery and human trafficking, as seen by the fewer prosecutions and conviction of traffickers and lower number of investigations as compared to the scale of the problem.

More importantly, despite worries that corruption facilitated trafficking, the government did not make sufficient efforts to prosecute official complicity in trafficking-related crimes or make public the results of investigations into such crimes.

For example, the government did not report initiating prosecutions against any of the 600 immigration officials, including seven who were arrested, for involvement in four smuggling syndicates which operated at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

Syndicates with high-level connections to the Immigration Department are still active.

Last week, police arrested an assistant director of Immigration in Johor for involvement in human trafficking. The 50-year-old woman was nabbed in follow-up investigations after three immigration officers were detained last month for being part of a people smuggling syndicate.

Earlier last month, police in Pahang arrested 11 people, including a Myanmar national, for smuggling workers from Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar to work in farms in the state.

In spite of the police successes in making such arrests, there is insufficient inter-agency coordination, as highlighted by the TIP report.

The successful prosecution of traffickers is affected by shortcomings in coordination, for example victims of trafficking are discouraged from remaining in Malaysia to participate in criminal proceedings.

The reality is Malaysia got away from relegation to Tier 3 by the skin of its teeth.

It was only granted a waiver to remain under the Tier 2 watchlist because it agreed to devote sufficient resources to a written plan which, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards.

As Tenagnita executive director Glorene Das highlighted recently, there seems to be confusion among the National Council on Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (Mapo), the various ministries, enforcement units and NGOs about what exactly human trafficking is.

Instead of basing efforts on the protection of the victims, there are excuses and justifications for the failure to identify victims based on the misconception that migrants and trafficked victims are “bad people” who should be deported without delay or charged with offences under the Immigration Act and penalised.

As she said, efforts and initiatives to combat human trafficking in the past have failed simply because of the corruption embedded in the system.

To stop the scourge, the corrupt must be jailed and not just fined, with their assets seized and all other penalties under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act, 2007 imposed.

Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by Jonathan Swift: “For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery.” The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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