Thailand is failing to comply with minimum standards to address human trafficking, while Malaysia is “making significant efforts” to eliminate human trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report released today.

The State Department retained Thailand on “Tier 3,” the report’s bottom ranking, and upgraded Malaysia from Tier 3 to the “Tier 2 Watchlist.” The State Department also upgraded Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watchlist. Countries receiving “Tier 3” rankings are subject to withholding or withdrawal of U.S. non-humanitarian and non-trade-related assistance.

Malaysia, migrant worker, forced labor, human trafficking, Solidarity Center

Speaking with union representatives, a migrant worker in Malaysia describes deplorable working conditions. Credit: MTUC

In May, hundreds of bodies were found in 139 mass graves at suspected human trafficking camps on the border of Malaysia and Thailand. According to local news, Malaysian border patrol knew about the camps for 10 years, says Karuppiah Somasundram, assistant secretary of education for the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC). No arrests have been made.

“Why (doesn’t the government) charge them and show the world something has been done? The local television said most of the deaths were due to hunger. You left them to die like that?” asked Karuppiah.

Since January, the MTUC and the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), both Solidarity Center allies, have documented hundreds of cases of employer abuse of migrant workers in Malaysia, often rising to the level of forced labor. Many of these workers, from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China and elsewhere, report that their employer had not paid them, or had given them wages far below what they had been promised before leaving home.

The widespread abuse reported across industries and by large numbers of workers demonstrate that these cases are not isolated incidents involving rogue employers, but workplace practices condoned within an officially sanctioned environment that denies fundamental human rights. A Wall Street Journal report today describes the slave-like conditions of migrant workers at Malaysia’s palm oil plantations. Karuppiah says the government employs few labor inspectors, making it unlikely they will travel to far-away plantations to look for workplace violations.

“Our allies in Malaysia are telling us there is still massive exploitation of migrant workers and rampant abuse of their rights,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “Migrant workers are beaten, held against their will, often unpaid and forced to live in unsanitary conditions, without running water, electricity or even mattresses to sleep on.”

“Many employers are still wrongly holding on to passports and work passes/visas/permits,” the MTUC said in a statement. “When workers claim their rights through existing legal avenues, many employers simply terminate their workers, and for migrant workers this also mean the loss of ability to stay in Malaysia which is a requirement in law if they want to pursue their claims for justice.”

In Uzbekistan, teachers, doctors and other medical staff are forced to take part in the country’s cotton harvest for several weeks at a time, a coerced mass mobilization of millions that involves extortion and bribery, according to a report released earlier this year by the nonprofit Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.

Last month, an Uzbek human rights monitor says she was arrested and assaulted as she sought to document the Uzbek government’s forced mobilization of teachers and doctors to clear weeds from cotton fields outside Tashkent, the capital.

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the News from The Solidarity Center