US boosts Malaysia’s human rights status

The State Department has elevated Malaysia in its latest human trafficking report, a move expected to bring a backlash from Capitol Hill and human rights groups.

The Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report on Monday gave Malaysia — one of 12 nations negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a boost to the Tier 2 Watch List from Tier 3, the lowest level.

“The Government of Malaysia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” State’s report said.

The move more easily allows Malaysia to remain part of the TPP, a sweeping international trade pact that negotiators are aiming to finish this week in Hawaii.

Sarah Sewall, State’s undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, told reporters that Malaysia’s qualification to remain part of the TPP didn’t come into play when evaluating their status, despite criticism from congressional lawmakers.

Sewall said the “watch list” status means there is “still much room for improvement in government’s anti-trafficking efforts.”

“We’re going to continue to encourage Malaysia and Malaysian officials of civil society to work together to make tangible progress to combat human trafficking,” she said.

She said that Malaysia — one of 44 countries on the Tier 2 Watch List — has made significant efforts since being downgraded last year to comply with the minimum standards through several channels, including increasing trafficking investigations and prosecutions as well as providing better victim protections.

Last year, the Malaysian government worked with civil society stakeholders to draft and propose amendments strengthening the existing anti-trafficking law and addressing concerns raised in previous TIP reports, she said.

The amendments were still pending at the end of the reporting period this spring.

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Monday that the “administration’s upgrade of Malaysia in the human trafficking report — without evidence of significant changes on the ground — is extremely concerning.” 
Levin said that “instead of paving the way for Malaysia’s participation in TPP, we should be working on actions that Malaysia should be taking to come into compliance” with international labor standards that ban forced labor.

Recently, a bipartisan group of 160 House lawmakers — including 14 Republicans and 12 Democrats who supported fast-track legislation — and 19 senators wrote letters to Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to keep Malaysia as a Tier 3 country.

The lawmakers and human rights groups argue that an upgrade would damage the reputation of the United States to combat global human trafficking.

They contend that Malaysia has done little to stop trafficking problems or improve conditions for migrant workers.

Of the 188 countries included in the report, 18 moved up and 18 fell a level.

The report said that the Malaysian government must increase efforts to bring traffickers to justice, including complicit officials, improve victim identification efforts and implement procedures to identify labor trafficking victims among vulnerable groups, such as migrant workers.

Refugees in Malaysia — including Rohingya men, women and children — can’t obtain legal work permits, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, the report said.

Foreign workers from Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nepal and Burma frequently travel to Malaysia looking for work.

Many find agricultural work or work at construction sites, within the electronics industry and as domestic workers and are “subjected to practices indicative of forced labor, such as restricted movement, wage fraud, contract violations, passport confiscation and imposition of significant debts by recruitment agents or employers,” the report said.

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