01 May, 2007

New Law Targets Traffickers, Not Victims


New Law Targets Traffickers, Not Victims - Baradan Kuppusamy (IPS)

Malaysia has tabled a tough new anti-human trafficking bill that punishes offenders with up to 20 years in prison, but rights activists, who had fought for such a law for a decade, say the bill's success depends heavily on effective enforcement.

Under the new law, tabled in parliament last week, trafficked victims will not be prosecuted for illegal entry or charged with entering the country with fraudulent documents that were provided by traffickers.

Instead, they will be placed in "friendly" half-way shelter houses for three months to two years to heal and help the authorities collect evidence to prosecute offenders.

Previously in a practice heavily condemned by local and international organisations, victims were handed over to immigration authorities who would incarcerate them in detention camps for long periods before deporting them to their home countries.

The victims were often also charged for illegal entry, working illegally or working in the vice trade.

Further, there was no comprehensive anti-trafficking law and no prosecutions for the specific offence of trafficking.

But all that is in the past.

Under the new law, traffickers and those who abet them face lengthy jail sentences of up to 20 years, heavy fines and even whipping.

"The new law is a major change for the better. It is tough on offenders and very comprehensive in its reach. But we fear it might sit pretty on the shelf if not effectively enforced," said Dr Irene Fernandez, executive director of TENAGANITA, a leading rights non-governmental organisation (NGO) that champions trafficked women and migrant workers. "We have demanded for such a law for a decade and now we have it...we are elated."

"It is a real success story," Irene told IPS. "A lot of individuals and NGOs had worked hard for this law."

She said the law will be a protection for trafficked women, nearly 65 percent of whom are forced into bonded labour and the rest into prostitution.

"Girls as young as 14 years old are victims," she said. "We hope the new law will end this tragedy."

Officials had worried that Malaysia was developing into a major transit centre for trafficked persons from Asia into Europe. "With this law we want to eliminate trafficking, we want to get tough," said Nazri Aziz, minister, legal and parliamentary affairs.

"It is a signal to the trafficking syndicates that we mean business," he told IPS.

The Anti-trafficking in Persons Bill 2007 is expected to become law within three months. Traffickers who use threats on their victims stand to be punished with 20 years in jail.

"Besides the severe penalties the law also defines the trafficked victim in accordance with United Nations protocols, making a definition that is wide enough to protect most victims," Fernandez said.

Other highlights of the bill include:

- setting up of a enforcement council with NGOs as members, to enforce all the provisions of the law

- create a national action plan to combat human trafficking

- set up shelters for foreign trafficked victims to stay between three to 2 years

- grant immunity from prosecution for trafficked persons

The country's Human Rights Commission or SUHAKAM in its Malay acronym, which had also championed for the anti-trafficking law, was elated.

"Finally, the government has acknowledged the problems and is taking the right action," said Dr Raj Abdul Karim, a SUHAKAM commissioner. "It is our hope that the bill will be effectively enforced."

She urged the government to also ratify the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, a protocol that supplemented the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, and covers the health and other consequences of trafficking.

The government, while announcing the bill, said it would make it easier for police, immigration and other authorities to pursue, prosecute and convict human traffickers.

Minister for women, family and community development Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who also pushed for the bill, said while human trafficking had not reached "alarming proportion", the government nevertheless is "committed to taking comprehensive measures to combat human trafficking."

In a statement she said that many victims are brought here for prostitution, forced labour and other illicit purposes.

"We plan to set up shelters for women and children who have fallen victim to human traffickers and alert the public to the issue through awareness campaigns," she said.

Police statistics for 2004 showed that about 400 foreign women, mostly from China, the Philippines and Vietnam, were rescued "from vice dens" between 2004 and last year.

However Fernandez said these figures were only the tip of the iceberg. "Trafficking of women into Malaysia for sexual exploitation is a huge problem that needs urgent measures to resolve," Fernandez said, adding the new law must be enforced effectively or the lawmakers' intentions to protect women and child would be defeated.

"Thousands of women are trafficked into Malaysiaàit is a huge problem," she said. "The industry is so lucrative that they have tentacles everywhere. The authorities must defeat them."

Labour experts and trade union officials want provisions of the new law extended to cover and protect the country's three million migrant workers, nearly half of them undocumented and therefore in a most vulnerable situation.

It is common for foreign workers to be transported here on false promises of easy jobs and high wages.

"Some workers in India and Pakistan were even shown videos of workers picking apples in Malaysia," said G. Rajasegaran, secretary general of the Malaysian Trade Union Council, the umbrella organisation of private sector unions that represents 11 million workers. "We don't grow apples in Malaysia."

"Malaysia is home to several million foreign workers and their working and living conditions are deplorableàextreme exploitation is a common everyday event," he said.

"The workers are brought here and put to hard labour and paid a pittance, if paid at all," Rajasegaran told IPS. "We consider them as victims of trafficking as wellàthe government must look at the larger picture that is trafficking."

Anwar Calls for a New Charter for Labour

Manwhile, Parti Keadilan Rakyat advisor Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim called for a "new charter for labour" that takes heed of globalisation and increased world trade but at the same time protects workers' "rights to free association and decent wages."

In a May Day message to workers, Anwar said while he acknowledged that globalisation and the resultant changes to world trade had subtracted from the power of unions, "certain rights of workers are inalienable and enduringly so."

"The right of workers to free association which is the right to form a union must be inviolable and the right to a fair wage for decent work must also be recognised," said the former finance minister who has become the titular leader of the Malaysian Opposition.

Anwar said in important sectors of the Malaysian economy, both the right to form a union and the right to decent wages were not part of the landscape of employer-worker relations.

"This is blot on the nation -- that after fifty years of Merdeka there are still workers who are prevented from being part of a union and are struggling to earn a livable wage," he lamented.

He said while Keadilan did not think that a legislated minimum wage would be the way forward, he said his party would "bring every channel of moral suasion" to bear on employers and management so that the later would not bust unions and would pay a livable wage.

"Our new charter for labour would recognise their basic rights to free association and a decent wage without recourse to legislation," he said.

"The power of the state to exert influence without recourse to legislation is enormous and PKR would use this moral capital to support workers' basic rights to free association and decent wages."

He said a concomitant right was decent affordable housing which he maintained was the government's duty to provide to citizens. "The provision of decent housing must be high on the list of priorities of a government that is sensitive to the people's needs," he said.

"The housing sector should not solely be regarded as an engine of growth for the economy. There must be a social responsibility dimension to housing provision and both government and the private sector must recognise this."

Anwar said that as part of Keadilan's new charter for labour, the Employees' Provident Fund should pay an annual dividend that is not less than 8 per cent to contributors. He also said that the new charter would also mandate the paying of a cost of living allowance to private sector employees if COLA is paid to public sector ones.

"Equivalence is necessary whenever there are such exigencies as fuel price and toll hikes which are burdensome to the common folk."

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