Lawyers for Liberty refers to Human Resources Minister M Saravanan recent statement saying that Malaysia is ready to enter into strategic cooperation with the US to tackle human trafficking issues, especially forced labour.
Whilst this is a positive development in advancing the labour laws of our country, it is unfortunate that it is seemingly prompted only upon receiving backlash from the international community regarding the treatment of migrant workers by certain companies in Malaysia.
Though the statement did reveal that a national action plan on forced labour is currently being developed in collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the lack of details provided does little to assuage our doubts on the efficacy of plan. This is especially due to the appalling treatment by the home minister and the Immigration Department towards migrants – seen throughout the pandemic period – who are the largest segment of those who fell victim to forced labour practices.
LFL and other organisations have repeatedly stated that migrants are victims of unscrupulous employers but this has fallen on deaf ears. The government has instead veered to the other extreme as exemplified by the numerous crackdowns conducted by the Immigration Department on migrants, justified by xenophobic statements given by the department’s top brass and the home minister himself, which directly contradicts any indication that forced labour or labour trafficking is the government’s top priority.
We must remind the government that tackling labour trafficking and forced labour practices in the country should in fact be one of its top priorities, because of Article 6 of the Federal Constitution, which prohibits slavery and forced labour in our country as well as by its international obligation under the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention, which Malaysia has ratified since 1957.
A huge and crucial step in addressing the issues of forced labour in the country is recognising the power asymmetry between employers and migrant workers caused by existing immigration laws and policies. It is common knowledge that many employers exploit the weakness of enforcement and the loopholes in existing laws to coerce migrants into what is essentially modern slavery, even to the extent of weaponising the enforcement authorities against them. Without a massive overhaul, any action plan is doomed to failure.
If the government is truly serious in finally eradicating the forced labour problem in our country, it must first admit that migrants are victims, not offenders to be treated like hardened criminals. The home minister especially must give full assurance that it is committed to conduct significant changes to current migration laws and policies as well as stopping its harsh and xenophobic treatment of migrants through the enforcement authorities. Only then can we move forward to a viable and workable solution.
Zaid Malek is coordinator of Lawyers for Liberty