Do more to curb human trafficking

IN response to the recently released 2018 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report by the US State Department, which saw Malaysia slip one step into Tier 2 Watch List, the Home Minister says (among other things) that the government will consider amending the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007 (Act 670) (ATIPSOM Act) by increasing sentences for offenders.

It may be true that enhanced penalties, including a mandatory spell in prison, may discourage a few would-be human traffickers. However, the higher penalty does not address a more fundamental problem, which is that the government authorities such as the police, immigration department, human resources department, attorney general's chambers etc often fail to correctly identify cases of human trafficking as such.

Consequently, traffickers who should have been charged under the ATIPSOM Act are charged for lesser offences such as wrongful confinement, non-payment of wages, cheating or simply go free. Civil society organisations such as Tenaganita, which have long worked with migrant workers, have expressed frustration that in many cases where indicators of forced labour are clearly present, the authorities seem to be stymied by a narrow, literal interpretation of the language of the ATIPSOM Act from using the Act to bring traffickers to justice. It is suggested that they learn from other jurisdictions on how to interpret and to use the Act.

Enhanced penalties under the Act may be fine, but they will serve little purpose unless the traffickers are charged under the Act.

To make matters worse, the victims of human trafficking are themselves charged for various offences under the Immigration Act such as not being in possession of valid travel documents or working without a valid work permit. In this context, it is worth noting that Immigration department's decision to embark on a massive crackdown on undocumented migrant workers is a flawed move because it does not address the underlying reasons for being undocumented. Unless serious consideration is given to factors such as cheating and unfair practices by agents (including those appointed by the immigration department), corrupt immigration personnel, irresponsible employers who do not ensure proper documentation for their migrant workers, and police officers who fail to investigate reports of human trafficking, the Director General of the Immigration department will be guilty of a grave injustice towards thousands of undocumented migrant workers who are simply victims of opaque and convoluted policies and procedures regarding migrant workers.

The problem of undocumented workers and human trafficking has plagued our country for far too long. The relevant government agencies of Malaysia baru, such as immigration, human resources, police departments, and the Attorney-General's chambers, should conduct extensive consultations individually and jointly with other stake holders including labour unions, employers' organisations and NGOs such as Tenaganita to identify gaps in current policies and practices and to work out a comprehensive, integrated and internally consistent policy and plan to combat human trafficking and to manage migrant workers.

Joseph Paul Maliamauv