WHEN the US Department of State upgraded its assessment of Malaysia’s efforts to combat human trafficking last month, the move drew anger from critics who saw it as a move to ease Malaysia’s inclusion into the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that the US is eager to clinch.
Before the upgrade, Malaysia had been listed in Tier 3 of the US Department of State’s Human Trafficking Report, placing it among the countries that fail to comply fully with the minimum US standards and have not been making a significant effort to address human trafficking.
In the 2015 edition of the State Department’s report, Malaysia has been put on the Tier 2 watch list, signifying that the government is making efforts to combat the issue.
The attention on human trafficking is important because the activity encompasses a pervasive web that implicates government agencies, labour recruiters, businesses, the underworld and customers in the exploitation of people, often to a horrific extent.
Despite the upgrade, it is unmistakable that Malaysia has a significant problem with human trafficking. For instance, in defending Malaysia’s revised ranking, US Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Sarah Sewall had said that Malaysia had made efforts to reform its victim-protection regime and legal framework, and had increased the number of investigations and prosecutions compared with 2013.
Even so, to quote a Reuters report, she said: “We remain concerned that low numbers of trafficking convictions in Malaysia is disproportionate to the scale of Malaysia’s human trafficking problem.”
More visceral evidence of the horrors of human trafficking surfaced earlier this year when mass graves containing nearly 150 bodies of suspected trafficking victims were uncovered on both sides of the Malaysia-Thai border, and thousands of refugees from Myanmar and economic migrants from Bangladesh were cast adrift in the Bay of Bengal by boatmen fleeing a Thai government crackdown on the illicit trade.
From anecdotal reports, trafficked persons may end up in Malaysia’s plantations, construction sites or factories as forced labour. Trafficking for sex is another dimension of the problem, which the US State Department report notes is controlled by organised crime syndicates. It says that a significant number of young foreign women are recruited ostensibly for legal work in Malaysian restaurants, hotels and beauty salons, but are subsequently coerced into the commercial sex trade.
Clearly, human trafficking is a pervasive problem in today’s world. The International Labour Organization estimates that some 21 million people worldwide are engaged in forced labour, some 56% of them in Asia.
Unfortunately, apart from expressing shock and anguish at the wretched fate of trafficking victims, as a society we have yet to show that we are determined to erase this shameful exploitation from our midst.
Perhaps our inaction reflects a sense of frustration at the hidden forces that are feeding the greed and corruption that lie behind the network of human trafficking.
The endless sea of migrants eager for a better life in a foreign land provides the food for a heartless breed of recruitment agents to satisfy their hunger for a quick buck. Complicit officials in both source and destination countries smoothen the passage for the lucrative flow of human traffic. An unscrupulous band of employers take advantage of the vulnerable pool of undocumented workers to withhold their pay and mistreat them. Uncaring corporations outsource their labour needs to crooked contractors, turning a blind eye to their exploitative practices.
At the end of the chain, the undiscerning consumer fuels this economic engine by remaining oblivious to the suffering that lies behind the products on the shelves.
No doubt it is natural that many people would feel helpless and discouraged in the face of the relentless materialism and unstoppable deviousness that drive human trafficking.
Nevertheless, history is full of examples of the triumph of the human spirit over apparently insurmountable obstacles. The abolishment of slavery in the 19th century and of apartheid in 1991 stand as shining examples of the progress of society. Likewise, the adoption of universal suffrage and progress towards gender equality demonstrate that fair play and equal opportunity can replace archaic social norms that have stunted society for ages.
In all these social reformations, the light of justice began to burn first in the hearts and minds of a few good people. Convinced about the righteousness of their views against the flow of mainstream opinion, they dared to proclaim their message loud and clear to society, and did not rest until the wrong that pervaded society was righted.
For human trafficking to be beaten, we have to ensure that no human being would be forced by adversity to abandon his or her home to seek a better life elsewhere.
We must be determined to ensure that everyone can have a fair chance of meeting their basic needs, including food, shelter, clothing, health, education and the pursuit of happiness.
Only when we make the fulfilment of these needs for all the priority of society, instead of operating on the principle of the survival of the fittest, can there be hope for those who tend to become victims of trafficking.
Are we ready to make it happen?
R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at digitaledge Weekly
This article first appeared in Opinion, digitaledge Weekly, on August 17 - 23, 2015.