HR Ministry to study claims of debt bondage in foreign workers’ recruitment process after US downgrade

Saravanan said his ministry has taken the necessary steps to stem forced work. ― Picture by Hari Anggara
Saravanan said his ministry has taken the necessary steps to stem forced work. ― Picture by Hari Anggara

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KUALA LUMPUR, July 5 — The Human Resources Ministry has pledged to implement several measures to address allegations of forced labour in the country.

This includes a study on the current recruitment process which labour rights groups claim put many foreign workers in debt bondage.

The US State Department said last Friday it had downgraded Malaysia to the worst tier in its annual report on human trafficking even as Putrajaya said it would ramp up efforts to stem the problem. 

Washington noted that Malaysia’s predominant human trafficking crime is forced labour. 

“The Human Resources Ministry takes serious note of the issues that fall under the ministry’s purview that were raised in the US State Department 2021 Annual Report on Human Trafficking which recently placed Malaysia in Tier 3,” Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri M. Saravanan said in a statement.

Acting Director of the State Department’s trafficking office Kari Johnstone said in a teleconference with reporters on Friday that the overwhelming majority of trafficking victims in Malaysia is migrant workers, of which there are an estimated two million who are documented, and a greater number undocumented, Reuters reported.

In response, Saravanan said his ministry has taken the necessary steps to stem forced work.

The minister has pledged to increase convictions of offenders involved in forced labour and roll out several new measures he said would curb foreign labour exploitation and strengthen workers’ welfare. 

This includes making employers pay for social security for all hired domestic helpers starting mid-year and “studying” allegations of hidden costs in the recruitment process that placed workers in debt bondage.

Labour rights groups have long highlighted loopholes and the urgent need to reform the law that enables recruitment agencies to tie workers in perpetual debt by slapping on hidden charges. 

“The ministry will again study issues regarding costs that are imposed by private recruitment agencies to see if there are hidden costs that place the burden on workers or even employers which enable exploitative elements and debt bondage,” the minister said.

The ministry did not give a timeframe on when the study would be concluded.

Malaysia fell to Tier 3 in this year’s closely-watched Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. The downgrade comes after a string of complaints by rights groups and US authorities over repeated allegations that migrant workers are being exploited in the plantations and factories.

Saravanan said his ministry, in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation, will table a national action plan to address the issue of forced labour.

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