PETALING JAYA: A UK-based activist has called on Malaysia to take urgent measures to eradicate modern slavery by strengthening the country’s labour laws.
“We have to recognise that this is one of the most heinous crimes that can be committed against another human being,” Andrew Wallis said on FMT’s talk show, Stakeholders, with Shireen.
He said Putrajaya should “upgrade” its legislation, an important step being taken by many countries worldwide.
“The UK, US and EU (European Union) are taking measures to tackle human trafficking and improve working conditions. That is something the Malaysian government can think about doing as well,” he told host Shireen Muhiudeen.
In Malaysia, Article 6 of the Federal Constitution provides that no person may be held in slavery. Forced labour is a criminal offence under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007, and Section 374 of the Penal Code.
Wallis said Malaysian businesses also need to be aware of stricter legislation in major export markets introduced to tackle the problem.
He gave the example of the “withhold release” imposed by the US Customs and Border Protection on products suspected of being tainted by forced labour practices.
Meanwhile, the UK parliament has passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and, more recently, the Health and Care Act 2022, to eliminate the use of goods manufactured with the use of forced labour.
Wallis said the EU likewise requires compliance with several human rights due diligence laws and a Tariff Act tied to forced labour.
“This is pertinent to Malaysia because what the Tariff Act says is that if goods can be proved (to be) tainted by forced slavery, then you won’t have access to the EU market,” he said.
Wallis suggested that in tandem with enacting tighter legislation, the government should also take steps to ensure that Malaysian companies adhere to the best practices and principles drawn up by the International Labour Organization.
“If you treat your workers well and you look after them well, your quality assurance and productivity will be improved, so that actually is a ‘win-win-win’ for business just by doing the right thing,” he said.
Supporting the victims
Describing forcing a person to work against their will as a “heinous crime” comparable to murder, Wallis also stressed the importance of victim support.
“We need to ensure that people have access to medical care, accommodation and legal support in their primary language.
“They may need financial support, and that’s particularly pertinent when they have arrived in a country with a significant amount of debt,” he said.
Asked who employers can look to for assistance in victim support, Wallis said that NGOs were a good starting point.
He said these organisations can offer victims of modern slavery the necessary support to turn them into “resilient individuals who are no longer vulnerable to exploitation”.
Wallis said NGOs also play an important role in allowing victims access to law enforcement since many of them lack trust in the police force.
“These victims don’t know how to access the legal framework, and so we work alongside them and allow justice to be facilitated. We understand their plight and their needs, and then ensure that if they want to, it is safe for them to go home,” Wallis said.
Formed in 2008, Wallis’s charity organisation Unseen offers safehouses and community support for survivors of trafficking and modern slavery, and runs a 24/7 hotline.
It also provides consultancy services in the field, raises awareness, and engages with stakeholders to influence legislation, improve practices and increase collaboration to end modern slavery.