Dave Welsh, country director for labor rights group Solidarity Center, said that historically, migrant workers in Malaysia were initially operating outside “the purview of what were very bad labor laws” which were harshly enforced. Malaysia’s laws, he added, were “very transparent and completely, deliberately almost proudly out of whack with any international labor law norms, and applied vigorously.”
In the works is a radical overhaul of labor laws, which will redefine the lives of more than six million impoverished migrant workers. “The conditions [in Malaysia] are appalling,” said the Solidarity Center’s Dave Welsh. “If even a modicum of what trade unions put forward is enacted into law, this is a huge game changer.”
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two countries where forced labor in cotton harvests is rampant, have been downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report released this morning. The report also downgraded Myanmar (Burma) but boosted the ranking of Thailand, which a coalition of labor and human rights groups says has not meaningfully addressed human trafficking and should not have been upgraded.
The report, which ranks countries based on their efforts to fight forced labor and human trafficking, downgraded Myanmar, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the lowest level (Tier 3), meaning their governments do not comply with minimum U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards and are not making significant efforts to become compliant.
Each year, the Uzbek government forces more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others to pick cotton for weeks during last fall’s harvest. Last year, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing researchers independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions.
In 2015, the State Department boosted Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to the “Tier 2 Watchlist,” saying the country was making efforts to become compliant with the TVPA, a move rejected by human rights activists who each year risk their lives to document widespread forced labor during cotton harvests.
Thailand Should Not Be Upgraded
Moving Thailand from the report’s lowest ranking is not warranted, according to a 13-member coalition, the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), which includes the Solidarity Center.
“Thailand’s lack of policy implementation and meaningful change on the ground calls for the lowest Tier 3 ranking,” says Kristen Abrams, ATEST acting director.
In June 2014, the State Department downgraded Thailand to the lowest ranking, due to reports of migrant workers, primarily from Burma and Cambodia, working in slave-like conditions on Thai fishing boats, fueling the country’s $7.3 billion seafood export industry and making it the world’s third-largest exporter. Today, many migrant workers still toil in forced labor and are held against their will on the boats where they are beaten and even killed. Thailand’s estimated 3 million migrants make up 10 percent of its workforce, but in seafood processing the make up 90 percent.
In releasing the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted the plight of domestic workers, many of whom are working in countries far from their homes and are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Kerry announced the creation of a model contract for domestic workers based on international standards and a memorandum of understanding for origin and destination countries that sets clear standards designed to prevent the abuses of domestic work.
‘Malaysia Has Done Little to Address Trafficking’
This year’s report also fails to fix last year’s controversial upgrade of Malaysia, according to the coalition.
“More than a year after the discovery of mass graves of trafficking victims along the Malaysia-Thailand border, there is little evidence that Malaysia has taken anything more than meager steps to address its troublesome human trafficking situation,” Abrams says.
Among the 27 countries on Tier 3, the lowest ranking, are Algeria, Burundi, Haiti, Russia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Profits from forced labor account for $150 billion per year, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
The report organizes countries into tiers based on trafficking records: Tier 1 for nations that meet minimum U.S. standards; Tier 2 for those making significant efforts to meet those standards; Tier 2 “Watch List” for those that deserve special scrutiny; and Tier 3 for countries that are not making significant efforts.
The Trafficking in Persons report, which has been issued annually for 16 years, covers 188 countries and is required by the 2000 TVPA law.
Khalid, 63, was first appointed by the Congress as its president in 2011 and was reappointed in 2013, according to Astro Awani, a Malaysian news outlet.
MTUC is at the forefront of protecting worker rights, including documenting the exploitation of hundreds of migrant workers in Malaysia.
Migrant workers at a glass factory in Malaysia say that for the past year, they have been forced to work 16-hour days, Monday through Friday, and eight-hour days on Saturdays and Sundays—without a day off. Injuries are common, such as the deep, seven-inch long gash one worker suffered on his chest while carrying glass.
Their report is the latest in a litany of continuing violations of migrant worker rights compiled by the Malaysian Trades Union Confederation (MTUC) and the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), both Solidarity Center allies.
Over the past year, MTUC and GEFONT have documented hundreds of cases of employer abuse of migrant workers in Malaysia, often rising to the level of forced labor. Many of these workers, from China, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, say their employer had not paid them, or had given them wages far below what they had been promised before leaving home. Female workers report being sexually assaulted by their employers.
Some 400 workers from Nepal died last year in Malaysia, according to Nepal’s labor attaché, who spoke before nearly 200 workers taking part at an MTUC-sponsored International Migrants Day event last month.
Migrant workers also suffer slave-like conditions on Malaysia’s palm oil plantations, according to a Wall Street Journal report last year.
Despite a slowing economy, employers in Malaysia are recruiting more migrant workers because they are paid less and do not receive social protection benefits, says N. Gopal Kishnam, MTUC general-secretary.
“Companies like to bring in foreign workers because they are easier to manage compared with locals. They also work hard and complain less,” Gopal told the Malaysian Insider.
A Malaysian employers’ group estimates that 20,000 workers were laid off last year, excluding 6,000 Malaysian Airlines workers who were let go as part of that company’s restructuring plan. Gopal said the figure is likely to be twice as high.
In July, the U.S. State Department upgraded Malaysia in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, citing the country’s “significant efforts” to eliminate human trafficking.
“Many employers are still wrongly holding on to passports and work passes/visas/permits,” the MTUC said last year. “When workers claim their rights through existing legal avenues, many employers simply terminate their workers, and for migrant workers this also mean the loss of ability to stay in Malaysia which is a requirement in law if they want to pursue their claims for justice.”