Many foreign workers believe “Malaysia is the land of milk and honey,” said Joseph Paul Maliamauv, of Tenaganita, a workers’-rights organization, when I met him at the group’s office in Petaling Jaya, a suburb on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. “They come out there, and think the streets are paved with gold.”
But upon arrival, migrants find this paradise doesn’t extend to them. Malaysia is “a booming economy and one of the most developed economies, multicultural and multinational, with a huge amount of foreign investment,” said David Welsh of the Solidarity Center, an affiliate of the labor group AFL-CIO, when I met him in Kuala Lumpur. “But in a region plagued with human-rights abuses and labor abuses, Malaysia is in many ways transparently the regional leader.”
Malaysia provides a window into a troubling part of the global economy that makes the whole system work, one that touches and connects practically every part of the world and billions of people: a flow of humans that shapes lives, creates the world’s things, and is built on the availability of a massive, inexpensive, and flexible labor supply. In Malaysia, it’s possible to see what maintains that flow: the recruitment strategies that bring workers to factories, the government policies that are so ineffective at protecting workers, the struggle to improve working conditions up and down supply chains, and the global political and economic realities that sustain the demand for cheap, unremitting work.
In 2014, the watchdog organization Verité released a study on migrant workers in the electronics sector in Malaysia. Among a sample of more than 400 foreign electronics workers, at least 32 percent were, by Verité’s definition, forced to work against their will. According to the report, “these results suggest that forced labor is present in the Malaysian electronics industry in more than isolated incidents, and can indeed be characterized as widespread.”
That same year, the U.S. State Department ranked Malaysia “Tier 3” in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, the worst rating possible, alongside countries such as Iran and North Korea. This rating is reserved for countries that commit egregious human-rights abuses. The next year the country was upgraded to a “Tier 2 Watch List” country, and then a full-fledged Tier 2 country in 2017—upgrades that many felt were unwarranted, especially because in 2015 graves of upwards of 130 suspected human-trafficking victims were found at the country’s border with Thailand. “It made a mockery,” Shawn MacDonald, the CEO of Verité, said of the State Department’s revision. Malaysia had “literally done nothing—if anything a slide backwards.”
Welsh and others said that the upgrade was widely assumed to be because of a side agreement, part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), between the United States and Malaysia that would give workers more rights. MacDonald alleges that the U.S. improved Malaysia’s ranking because of the country’s “very, very adamant” support for the TPP. The TPP fell apart (bringing the side agreement down with it), but nevertheless the State Department upgraded the ranking, one of the best ways to encourage improvement on the human-rights front.