Pandemic controls uncover foreign workers in virtual slavery
by Steve Suwannarat

Some 229 illegal immigrants are found and arrested at a metal disposal company. For the authorities, the situation is "under control", but the US State Department, in its human trafficking report, downgraded Malaysia to the bottom tier.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – Forced labour, especially among irregular migrants, is setting off alarm bells in Malaysia.

Recently, Malaysian police arrested 229 foreign workers employed by a metal disposal company in the capital.

Overall, forced labour is not “out of control”, the authorities claim, but for many, we have seen only the tip of the iceberg.

The US State Department's annual report on human trafficking in the world, released yesterday, downgraded Malaysia from second to third tier (the worst), noting that the practice is a major issue in the country.

According to Acting Director of the State Department's trafficking office Kari Johnstone, forced labour in Malaysia can be found in many sectors, including palm oil and other agriculture plantations, as well as the construction industry, and manufacturing.

The problem has received greater coverage in recent months because of increasing outbreaks of the coronavirus among foreign workers who are the least protected.

The situation has favoured the growth of the pandemic. Last month, Malaysia reported in fact the highest number of cases in Asia in relation to the population. However, the exploitation of foreign workers in the country is nothing new.

Malaysia has attracted foreign workers for a long time, especially from Muslim majority countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia (especially Indonesia and Bangladesh). Foreign migrants are generally employed in lower-paying jobs that are less attractive to Malaysians.

Some 212,000 people are said to work under forced labour conditions. The Malaysian government is opposed to the practice but so far it has little to show in terms of results.

According to Reuters, some1,600 investigations took place between 2014 and 2018 with only 140 convictions.

Foreign workers are needed to support the country’s economy because of a shortage of qualified personnel. However, many migrant women are used as domestic help or as prostitutes.

Often the exploitation takes place amid the indifference if not the complicity of the authorities, which apply rigidly, even arbitrarily the laws that regulate immigration and the employment of asylum seekers.

In this situation, migrants are at risk of becoming prey to human traffickers. Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in Myanmar or an unbearable life in refugee camps in Bangladesh, are one example.