Hypocrisy amidst human trafficking

  • Letters
  • Thursday, 21 Jun 2007

It is ridiculous of the United States to censure countries for contributing to modern day slavery, as its record is no better. 

THE windows are broken and shards are strewn all over the yard, yet Uncle Sam still lives in the same glasshouse and continues to throw stones. 

His words sound increasingly hollow and his acts more farcical. Like his role as the paladin of modern day slavery in the latest hypocritical drama. 

How else can one typecast the United States, especially after its latest Trafficking in Persons Report, which has bundled Malaysia with the worst offenders of the world’s third largest illegal industry after arms and drug smuggling? 

The 236-page document that covers 164 countries says some 800,000 people have been trafficked across the world, 80% of them women and girls, half of them minors, who are eventually trapped into prostitution. 

And we are now on the US' slime de la slime “Tier 3” list, along with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. 

But it is not just the crying shame of being yoked with the worst of the lot. A glowering Uncle Sam has also warned: “Git your act together within 90 days or I’ll whup ya ass!” 

Malaysia now faces sanctions. We may not give two hoots about the denial of non-humanitarian, non-trade related foreign aid. But the United States can effectively bar us from international conferences and educational and cultural programmes on the basis of “Tier 3” ignominy. 

Ironically, the blacklisting was made after the new Anti-Trafficking in Persons Bill 2007 was finally drafted and tabled in Parliament. It is a tough law by all accounts. Those who profit from the scourge as well as abet the traffickers can now be jailed up to 20 years, fined heavily and also whipped for good measure. 

Critics abroad and at home have lauded the Bill. Even Tenaganita’s Irene Fernandez, who has tenaciously championed the cause of migrant workers and human trafficking victims for decades, has described it as a “success story.” 

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, who declared that the law would “send a signal to the human trafficking syndicates that we mean business,” must be as puzzled as Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar by the censure. 

Malaysia has been blamed for “failure to show satisfactory progress” in punishing acts of trafficking, providing shelters and social services to victims and protecting migrant workers from involuntary servitude – all of which are covered by the new law. 

But then again, the report’s credibility is questionable, given its mysterious method of ranking. According to Mark Lagon, the US State Department’s senior adviser on Trafficking in Persons, “variables” were used to determine listings in “Tier 1” (countries that meet the requirements), “Tier 2” (countries that had made changes to improve), “Tier 2 Watchlist” (countries given warning of demotion) and “Tier 3” (blacklist).  

For example, India, which has the severest case of human trafficking and has been on the “Tier 2 Watchlist” for the fourth year running, was again only given another slap on the wrist. One cannot help but wonder if preferential treatment comes with being a new US nuclear buddy.  

One also wonders why two of our close neighbours, where human trafficking is obviously more rampant, were also spared reproach. 

Lagon said the report was not an assessment or judgment on nations but a blueprint about the things the United States could help other countries with. If so, can other nations also help the United States resolve its trafficking in persons problem, which by the way happens to be just one sphere of its numerous human rights violations? 

He also estimated the number of such cases in the United States at between 14,500 and 17,500 per year, adding that he wished there were better statistics. Can we offer some help in that direction, sir? 

Let’s start with your “guest worker” programme for unskilled labourers. The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil rights organisation based in Alabama, published a report about it earlier this year. It was titled Close to Slavery

Under the system, called the H-2 programme, some 121,000 guest workers were brought in from Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru and other South American countries to the United States two years ago. About 32,000 ended up in the agricultural sector and 89,000 went into jobs in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction and shipyards. 

The report says these workers are systematically exploited and abused. If they complain, they face deportation or other retaliation. Their few rights exist only on paper. Government enforcement is almost non-existent and lawyers typically will not take up their cause. 

Bonded to bosses who hire them and having no access to legal redress, they are routinely cheated out of their already low wages, held virtually captive by employers or agents who keep their passports, made to live in squalid quarters and denied medical benefits for injuries. 

To use the words of US Congress Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, it’s the “closest thing to slavery.” 

Like elsewhere in the world, these workers were recruited by unscrupulous people who make hefty profits at the expense of their blood, sweat and tears. These workers might have been flown in legally, but morally, its human trafficking just the same. 

In the “Tier 3” blacklist, there are six Middle East nations – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar. A notable absentee is Jordan, a country with which the United States has a Free Trade Agreement. 

Tens of thousands of “guest workers” from Bangladesh, China, India and Sri Lanka are now in the country trapped in forced labour, sewing clothing for Wal-Mart, Gloria Vanderbilt, Target, Kohl's, Thalia Sodi for Kmart, Victoria's Secret, L.L. Bean and other big brand names, according to a report in the Bilaterals.org website. 

In one of the factories, managers raped three women and a 16-year-old girl last year. Despite being forced to work 109 hours a week, including 20-hour shifts, the workers received no wages for six months. Those who fell asleep from exhaustion were woken up with whacks from rulers. 

The report stated that another factory was run on 24-, 38- and even 72-hour shifts. Workers were paid an average wage of two US cents an hour. They were also slapped, kicked, punched and hit with sticks and belts. 

For the record, Jordan's garment exports to the United States rose by 2,000% between 2000 and 2005, amounting to US$1.1bil (RM3.7bil). And, guess what? These fancy togs enter the United States duty-free.  

Widespread human trafficking and sexual slavery is also rife in the US territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, a chain of 14 isles in the Pacific Ocean, no thanks to lax laws and corruption.  

Victims from The Philippines, China and elsewhere from Asia told their horror stories of kidnappings, rapes and forced labour to visiting Washington officials earlier this month.  

And let’s also not forget Iraq, where millions of victims of an illegally waged war have fled, becoming fodder for human trafficking syndicates. Within the occupied country, slave-like labour is a new reality.  

Last October, the Chicago Tribune exposed links between US military contracting firm Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) and human trafficking. Support operations were given to KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, at a cost of more than US$12bil (RM41bil), and the firm outsourced most of the work to 200 subcontractors based in the Middle East. 

These subcontractors brought in between 35,000 and 48, 000 foreign workers to do the dirty, menial work. Tribune’s “Pipeline to Peril” story detailed abuses committed against the workers, highlighting the horrific deaths of 12 Nepali workers who were abducted and killed by insurgents. 

So, it is just not enough to just “mention” your own human trafficking problems in the report and declare your deep commitment to confronting it. Or that you are working as a partner with other countries with “substantial and compassionate funding” even if it has been more than US$448mil (RM1.5bil) so far.  

All these mean nothing if you do not have the decency to put yourself on “Tier 3” where you rightfully belong, Uncle Sam. 

The UN Economic and Social Council has stated that globalisation has led to widening disparity in job opportunities, income and living standards across the world. Globalisation’s failure to create new jobs where people live is a prime factor in increasing migration pressures. 

Human trafficking is a heinous, complex criminal activity connected to the supply and demand of cheap labour. Greedy corporations in the United States and other rich countries are very much a part of its root cause. As such, the continuous shrill-voiced avuncular advice can get rather tiresome. 

Deputy News Editor M. Veera Pandiyan has some experience in earning pittance for tough menial labour. He has worked as a construction labourer, lorry attendant and factory hand. 

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