Malaysia’s government pledged yesterday to take steps to eliminate forced labor after the U.S. government downgraded the country to its lowest level in its annual report on human trafficking. In its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, released on July 2, the U.S. State Department said that the COVID-19 pandemic had contributed to a surge in human slavery over the past year.
After being on a watch list for three years, the report dropped Malaysia to “Tier 3,” its lowest ranking, which it reserves for “countries whose governments do not fully meet the minimum [anti-trafficking] standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”
The TIP report claimed that forced labor continued to be a serious problem in Malaysia. Specifically, it said that the authorities continued to conflate human trafficking and migrant smuggling crimes, and did not adequately address or criminally pursue credible allegations on labor trafficking.
As per Reuters, Human Resources Minister M. Saravanan said yesterday that the government was taking the TIP downgrade seriously, and would take action on a number of issues, including recruitment fees charged to workers. It would also review its agreements with the home countries of migrant workers.
“The government will continue to give attention to challenges in addressing forced labor issues, especially those involving foreign workers, and will continue to implement various improvements to existing initiatives,” he said in a statement.
Over the past year, Malaysian rubber glove manufacturers and palm oil producers have come under U.S. scrutiny over forced labor and other abuses. In March, the U.S. government banned imports from the world’s largest glove maker, Top Glove, saying it had found reasonable evidence of forced labor practices at the company’s production facilities in Malaysia, a move that forced the company to delay plans to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
Last September, Washington banned imports from the palm oil plantation giant FGV Holdings Berhad after a year-long investigation that revealed signs of forced labor, including deception, physical and sexual violence, intimidation and threats, and retention of identity documents. Two months later, it made a similar ruling in the case of another plantation behemoth, Sime Darby Berhad. Similar abuses were uncovered by the Associated Press in a series of investigations it published last year.
While the TIP report acknowledged that Malaysia’s government had prosecuted and convicted some traffickers, its efforts fell far short of the minimal standards outlined in U.S. law. “The government continued to conflate human trafficking and migrant smuggling crimes and did not adequately address or criminally pursue credible allegations from multiple sources alleging labor trafficking, including in the rubber manufacturing industry and palm oil sector,” it stated.
When it did pursue cases of forced labor, the report added, it often treated them as violations of labor laws rather than criminal cases of human trafficking.
Saravanan said yesterday that the Malaysian government will study the costs imposed by the agencies that recruit migrant workers for the rubber and palm oil industries, in order to ensure there are no hidden charges that could lead to worker exploitation and debt bondage. He also said that the government is working with the International Labor Organization to draw up an action plan to address the issue of forced labor and child labor, something that should be ready by the fourth quarter of this year.
The downgrade, which has kicked Malaysia into the same category as North Korea, Myanmar, China, Syria, and Turkmenistan, means that Malaysia could lose some U.S. assistance, although the U.S. president can choose to issue a waiver. Decisions on whether to impose penalties will not be made until later this year.
Despite the documentation that goes into them, the TIP rulings have never been entirely isolated from politics, and Malaysia’s downgrade will no doubt complicate broader U.S. goals in the region: namely, its attempt to rally Southeast Asian nations into a coalition aimed at curbing China’s growing power and influence in the region. As ever, strategic imperatives and values promotion remain ends in partial tension.