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Weeding out xenophobia at home ministry the solution to forced labour problem, govt told

Lawyers for Liberty says the home ministry must stop its harsh treatment of migrants and commit to conducting significant changes to current migration laws.

Staff Writers
2 minute read
Officers from the immigration department detain a migrant worker during a raid in Cyberjaya last month. Photo: Bernama
Officers from the immigration department detain a migrant worker during a raid in Cyberjaya last month. Photo: Bernama

Rights group Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) today called for an overhaul of immigration policies and the attitude of the authorities towards migrant workers as part of efforts to address the issue of forced labour in the country, in the wake of Malaysia’s downgrade in the US’ latest annual report on human trafficking.

LFL coordinator Zaid Malek said the recent commitment from Human Resources Minister M Saravanan to entering into strategic cooperation with the US over the issue was a positive development, but that there was a lack of details on how this would be done.

“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,” he said.

“If the government is truly serious about 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 conducting 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.”

The US State Department’s “2021 Trafficking in Persons Report” released on July 2 had downgraded Malaysia to the Tier 3 list of worst offenders, alongside countries such as Afghanistan, China, North Korea and South Sudan.

On July 13, Saravanan said he had spoken with US ambassador to Malaysia Brian McFeeters and conveyed the ministry’s willingness to enter into strategic cooperation with the US in efforts to improve enforcement to increase the number of convictions concerning forced labour cases.

“The forced labour issue, especially involving foreign workers, is given a priority by the government following the US State Department’s report as well as several other reports and studies conducted by various international institutions,” he said.

In his statement today, Zaid said it was unfortunate that Malaysia’s commitment appeared to be prompted “only upon receiving backlash from the international community”.

“We must remind the government that addressing labour trafficking and forced labour practices in the country should in fact be one of its top priorities, by virtue of Article 6 of the Federal Constitution, which prohibits slavery and forced labour in our country as well as by its international obligation under ILO’s Forced Labour Convention, which Malaysia has ratified since 1957,” he said.

He said it was common knowledge that many employers exploit the weakness of enforcement as well as 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,” he said.

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