Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally – Abraham Lincoln
If you ask me, the idea of slavery after the millennium is rather shameful, considering we have passed the millennium and on (a rather rocky) path to be a developed country.
Malaysia is a destination and, to a lesser extent, a source and transit country for women and children trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and for men, women, and children trafficked for the purpose of forced labor.
The Government of Malaysia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so, despite some progress in enforcing the country’s new anti-trafficking law.
While the government took initial actions under the anti-trafficking law against sex trafficking, it has yet to fully address trafficking in persons issues, particularly labor trafficking in Malaysia.
The above report was published in June 2009 and those in power either dismissed it as “wild allegations”. Fast forward to the end of 2010, you are still hearing news like this:-
A family of five, including three young children, was forced to work as bonded slaves for four years after the father failed to settle a loan taken from their employer in Bahau, Negri Sembilan, Tamil Nesan reported.
Their plight came to light only after the 31-year-old man and his family fled from the estate on Dec 19 with the help of a taxi driver and approached the Astivaram Foundation for help.
The foundation’s public complaints bureau chief, Sri Sanjivan, told a press conference on Sunday that the employer, a well-known businessman in Bahau, had kept the family under tight security and had forced the family to work in the plantations.
The parents had to tap the rubber trees in the morning and work in the oil palm plantation later in the day.
“The children, aged four to 11, were not allowed to attend school and were forced to do household chores,” Sri Sanjivan said.
The family had originally taken a loan of RM5,000 from the businessman but since they could not pay back the loan, the family had to work without any wages for the past four years.
Sri Sanjivan said the employer wants the family to pay him RM13,000 for their “release”.
He said two police reports have been made, one at Air Hitam and the other at Jempol, but claimed the police had refused to get involved.
The exploitation of the poor and the powerless come in many forms – the harshest and extreme of human degradation would be in the form of slavery.
Modern-day slavery is nothing new and for those who been under the blanket on the reality of things, it indeed sounds troubling as this entry in Wikipedia clearly illustrates:-
The number of slaves today remains as high as 12 million to 27 million (24 million in Asia alone), though this is probably the smallest proportion of the world’s population in history.
Most are debt slaves, largely in South Asia, who are under debt bondage incurred by lenders, sometimes, even for generations.
Human trafficking is primarily for prostituting women and children into sex industries. It is the fastest growing criminal industry and is predicted to eventually outgrow drug trafficking.
The act of forcing a whole family into slavery for four years for a pitiful sum of RM5,000 should be condemned.
Holding the debt against the person who has taken it is one thing but holding the man’s wife and children accountable and forcing to work from morning to evening without freedom and pay for such a long time is a simply unspeakable evil, deserves the hard whack of the stick and need to be made sure that the same act of evil is not repeated ever in future.
In Malaysia, we have Anti Commercialisation of People’s Act 2007 provides jail sentence between 15 – 20 years to those who have been guilty but how many been caught and successfully prosecuted?
We also have a Secretariat of Anti Commercialisation of People Council under the Home Ministry to coordinate the enforcement and cooperation between the various departments. We do have the means but have we covered all the bases?
Considering the long period of the family forced into bonded slavery, one needs to wonder where else we have gone wrong. There are several factors to consider:-
Considering that a family had to come to a level where they had to borrow from others and unable to pay and end up as modern-day slaves, the Government need to relook into the poverty line and the ever-growing cost of living.
Are we going to have a bigger pool of poor people who, just to keep their family alive, allow themselves to be easily exploited by those with the money and power, end up as the unrecognized slaves?
This is why perhaps; there are still people, despite knowing the end outcome of not paying, turning to the “bloody sucking”, ruthless loan sharks for money.
The law against slavery
We have rules for unlawful imprisonment and we even have a fully paid commission to investigate breaches of human rights but what about slavery itself? How effective the enforcement has been in weeding out those who have enslaved others?
Understandably, it is not easy for the Government to identify camouflaged, unspoken slavery in a modern setting – if there is no complaint or evidence, there is nothing much that the Government can do. In the above case, the family was nothing but lucky.
They managed to get out from their imprisonment alive and with their family still intact and able to make their case on this matter. Others have not been so lucky – they may need to keep themselves quiet in fear of reprisal against them and their loved ones.
The existing living condition
In most cases of modern slavery, there has been a case made by those who had forced the poverty-stricken family into bonded labour – that it is made in the family’s best interest – old debts been paid off, money is strictly controlled to avoid unnecessary vices, the family still get some money at end of the day and jobs is arranged to ensure a stable income.
So, they say whilst making sure these families are bonded to them for many more years. What caused the huge debt (small amount for us, exorbitant for others) in the first place?
Why they allowed themselves to be exploited by those with money and power?
Use of children as bonded labourers
In the Tamil movie, Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, children from the village were prevented from going to school and forced to work in a match-box factory. The idea was to keep these children illiterate and poor so that they can be continued to be exploited even after they have become adults.
In 1973, International Labour Organization adopted The Minimum Age Convention which requires ratifying states to pursue a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour and to raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment or work.
Malaysia is one of the signatories to this Convention although it was only signed in 1997 (24 years later).
Children in slavery in Malaysia have another problem – other than not having access to education – they don’t have the right documents that identify them as the citizen of this country. The vicious cycle continues.
One needs to wonder where else, in this great country, there are still poor, helpless families locked away in bonded slavery working without pay or freedom, not able to foresee the end of the tunnel for them.
Will we continue to sleep on this issue, thinking that it is not prevalent in this country and that only happens very rarely (and perhaps to foreigners only)?
Will we give serious attention to the 2009 report that put us shamefully along with other modern slave nation and put forward more drastic measures to curtail human trafficking and slavery?
We need to do more – we will be moving into 2011 in just a couple more days and we still have human slavery, forced labour and human trafficking right in our own backyard.