PETALING JAYA: A renowned UK-based activist has branded modern slavery a “significant illicit industry” in Malaysia, citing estimates showing there are some 212,000 victims of modern slavery in the country at any given time.
Andrew Wallis, founder of migrant labour rights NGO Unseen, also said the modern slavery trade generates profits approaching US$500 billion per annum.
“The problem is pervasive, and it affects various sectors,” he said on the latest episode of FMT’s talk show, Stakeholders, with Shireen.
“We know there are problems in the electronics, agriculture, construction, and medical glove manufacturing industries.”
“Modern slavery” refers to the exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain, and occurs through the use of violence, threats, coercion, deception or abuse of power. It is considered a violation of human rights and dignity.
Human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, commercial sexual exploitation, and child labour are common examples of modern slavery.
Asked what contributes to the problem, Wallis, one of the catalysts behind UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, said corruption, inadequate labour law enforcement, a large migratory workforce and poverty all play a significant role.
In Malaysia, he said a lack of awareness, an inadequate legal framework and insufficient resources are the biggest obstacles to combating the problem.
However, he acknowledged that the Malaysian government has been taking steps to address the issue by focusing on efforts to reduce human trafficking and forced labour violations.
“I’m delighted that we’re covering this subject,” Wallis told host Shireen Muhiudeen.
“It’s really important that people are aware that it is going on. You can’t tackle something unless you know precisely how it’s taken place.”
Wallis said that in 2021, the UK government came under fire for purchasing medical gloves from Malaysian manufacturers for the National Health Service despite the US imposing sanctions following allegations of the use of force or indentured labour in their manufacture.
That saw a lawsuit, which the UK government settled out of court, and resulted in the enactment by its parliament of the Health and Care Act 2022 aimed at eliminating the importation of goods manufactured through the use of forced labour.
“So, we’ve gone from this voluntary matrix to (a) legal framework,” he said.
Wallis also said most migrant workers arrive in Malaysia in significant debt, placing them in a position of vulnerability.
He said although many of the issues migrant workers face occur in their home countries, it is the responsibility of the companies seeking to employ them to ensure compliance by suppliers of their workforce.
That means companies must agree to pay to bring those workers into Malaysia and adhere to the principles of fair recruitment and decent work set by the International Labour Organization to eliminate exploitation, said Wallis.
Ultimately, he said, it is the reputation of the company and its brand name which are at stake and “get the media focus” when issues of modern slavery within its workforce arise.