Malaysia has remained at Tier 3 of the US' Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report for 2022, with US authorities saying Putrajaya does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.
In the report, the US Department of State said the government had taken "some steps" to address the issue trafficking, such as amending the anti-trafficking law and the Employment Act to include a wider definition of forced labour.
It said Putrajaya had also convicted more traffickers than during the previous reporting period and issued more freedom of movement passes for identified victims in government-funded shelters, in addition to adopting a five-year national action plan against forced labour.
"However, the government continued to conflate human trafficking and migrant smuggling crimes, which impeded law enforcement and victim identification efforts," it said.
"Anti-trafficking investigations declined, and the government did not prosecute or convict government officials allegedly complicit in trafficking crimes."
The TIP report for 2022 covers government efforts undertaken from April 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022.
Countries are ranked by tier, with Tier 1 as the highest of four. Placements are made based on the extent of government efforts to meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2000 (TVPA).
Tier 1 countries are those whose governments fully meet the minimum standards of the TVPA while Tier 2 countries do not but are making significant efforts.
Tier 2 Watch List countries are those whose governments do not fully meet the minimum standards but are making significant efforts to do so, and for which the estimated number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing and the country is not taking proportional concrete actions.
They also comprise those in which there is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year, including increased investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of trafficking crimes, increased assistance to victims, and decreasing evidence of complicity in severe forms of trafficking by government officials.
Countries whose governments neither meet the minimum standards nor make significant efforts to do so are placed on Tier 3.
Governments of countries on Tier 3 may be subject to certain restrictions on foreign assistance, whereby the president may determine, among others, not to provide US government nonhumanitarian, nontrade-related foreign assistance as defined in the TVPA.
Malaysia has been on Tier 3 for two years now, since 2021. It was on Tier 2 Watch List for the previous three years, from 2018 to 2020, although it was ranked on Tier 2 in 2017.
Prior to that, it was again on Tier 2 Watch List from 2015 to 2016.
The 2022 report said that as in previous years, Putrajaya did not adequately address or criminally pursue credible allegations from multiple sources alleging labour trafficking in the rubber manufacturing industry and palm oil sector.
It said the failure to address trafficking in these sectors had allowed abusive employers to sometimes operate with impunity.
"Because of inconsistent identification efforts, authorities continued to inappropriately penalise trafficking victims for immigration and 'prostitution' violations," it said.
"Poor interagency coordination and overall inadequate victim protection services, which discouraged foreign victims from remaining in Malaysia to participate in criminal proceedings, continued to hinder successful anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts."
The report recommended, among others, that Malaysia increase its efforts to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, including household workers and workers in the palm oil and rubber manufacturing sectors.
It also suggested that the government train the relevant officials, including police, labour inspectors, and immigration officials, on SOPs for victim identification that include information on trafficking indicators.
It said labour protections should be increased, alongside law enforcement capacity to investigate and prosecute trafficking cases and prohibit employers from retaining passports without the employees' consent.
"Eliminate recruitment or placement fees charged to workers by recruiters and ensure recruitment fees are paid by employers," it added.
"Reduce prosecution delays, including by providing improved guidance to prosecutors on pursuing trafficking charges, and increase judicial familiarity with the full range of trafficking crimes, particularly forced labour.
"Increase efforts to identify trafficking victims among People’s Republic of China (PRC) workers on PRC government-affiliated infrastructure projects."
The report said ongoing corruption related to processes for foreign nationals to work in Malaysia increases the cost of migration and consequently increases migrant workers’ vulnerability to trafficking through debt-based coercion.
"Corrupt immigration officials facilitate trafficking by accepting bribes from brokers and smugglers at border crossings, including at airports. Some government officials profit from bribes and direct involvement in extortion from and exploitation of migrants," it said.