Mi­grant des­per­a­tion is fod­der for mod­ern-day slav­ery

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY RICHARD S. EHRLICH

BANGKOK | The il­le­gal sex trade gets most of the head­lines about the un­der­ground busi­ness of hu­man bondage, but the forced­la­bor racket is a largely un­told stor y of mod­ern slav­ery in South­east Asia.

In one all-too-typ­i­cal case, a group of fright­ened work­ers late last month climbed out of a win­dow at a Bangkok gar­ment fac­tory where up to 60 mi­grants from Myan­mar worked and lived in four tiny apart­ments.

One of the work­ers told po­lice that they were forced to work in the fac­tory from 8 a.m. to mid­night and paid less than $7 a month.

Two fac­tory own­ers were ar­rested, and they tried to jus­tify their ac­tions.

“I de­tained them in­side the fac­tory to pre­vent their es­cape,” sweat­shop owner Namee Sae Lee was quoted as say­ing.

The fac­tory own­ers told in­ves­ti­ga­tors that the mi­grants were locked up and forced to work with­out a salary be­cause each em­ployee had to re­im­burse a $500 “re­cruit­ment fee” they had paid a hu­man traf­ficker.

Hu­man smug­glers ea­gerly profit from mi­grant work­ers’ poverty, ig­no­rance and des­per­a­tion, in­clud­ing many unem­ployed men and women who beg to be smug­gled abroad de­spite know­ing the risks.

Mi­grants pay huge fees and bribes to un­scrupu­lous agents and of­fi­cials to se­cure ac­cess to jobs. But they of­ten end up work­ing in wretched con­di­tions, cheated out of their mea­ger wages or ar­rested by authorities who squeeze them for cash or sex while im­pris­on­ing them be­fore send­ing them back home.

More than 12 mil­lion peo­ple are ex­ploited into forced la­bor around the world, with about 9.5 mil­lion in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion alone, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. In­ter­na­tional La­bor Of­fice.

The il­le­gal trade gen­er­ates nearly $10 bil­lion a year.

Hu­man traf­fick­ing world­wide has en­trapped up to 27 mil­lion peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the State Depart­ment. Most are forced into pros­ti­tu­tion or other parts of the il­le­gal sex busi­ness, but ex­act fig­ures are un­avail­able.

Ac­tivists urge authorities who are se­ri­ous in com­bat­ing forced la­bor to fol­low the money to try to trace the fees em­ploy­ers pay to hu­man smug­glers.

“When high and of­ten in­flated re­cruit­ment fees leave mi­grants heav­ily in­debted, they are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to abuse,” Chowdhury Abrar, chair­man of the in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions depart­ment at Bangladesh’s Dhaka Univer­sity, said at a con­fer­ence last week on hu­man traf­fick­ing in Dhaka.

“Crack­ing down on ex­ces­sive fees and un­eth­i­cal re­cruit­ment prac­tices will be a key in­gre­di­ent to any re­form,” he added.

Del­e­gates from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, In­dia, In­done­sia, Nepal, Pak­istan, the Philip­pines, Sri Lanka, Thai­land and Viet­nam at­tended the meet­ing as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of coun­tries that are sources of il­le­gal traf­fick­ing.

Bahrain, Italy, Kuwait, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Ara­bia, South Korea and the United Arab Emi­rates sent ob­servers rep­re­sent­ing coun­tries plagued by the il­le­gal re­cruit­ment of slave la­bor.

In re­cent weeks, traf­ficked work­ers be­came in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble af­ter the up­ris­ings in Arab coun­tries. Thou­sands of Asian mi­grants were stranded, un­able to get paid or im­me­di­ately es­cape from Tu­nisia to Ye­men.

In South­east Asia, gov­ern­ments also have failed to pro­tect work­ers from abuse.

In 2009, In­done­sia tried to stop its cit­i­zens from mi­grat­ing to Malaysia to work as ser­vants, clean­ers and other do­mes­tic helpers be­cause such work­ers fre­quently are abused.

Savvy traf­fick­ers and re­cruiters have re­sponded by of­fer­ing those jobs in rel­a­tively pros­per­ous Malaysia to ea­ger, im­pov­er­ished Cam­bo­di­ans in­stead.

Thai­land tough­ened im­mi­gra­tion laws this year to de­port il­le­gal Myan­mar work­ers and re­place them with legal mi­grants from Bangladesh and In­done­sia.

Em­ploy­ees and hu­man rights groups, how­ever, pre­dicted that the plan would fail. They said the ex­pense of fly­ing work­ers from Bangladesh and In­done­sia to Thai­land would be less at­trac­tive than hir­ing Myan­mar il­le­gals who eas­ily cross the por­ous ThaiMyan­mar bor­der on their own.

Thai­land uses about 2 mil­lion low-skilled work­ers from Myan­mar, and many of them are il­le­gal aliens.

Thai fac­to­ries, con­struc­tion sites, fish­ing busi­nesses and do­mes­tic em­ploy­ers want more Myan­mar peo­ple to be al­lowed to work in this rapidly mod­ern­iz­ing coun­try be­cause of a la­bor short­age at the bot­tom rungs of the work force.

The most tragic cases of abuse in South­east Asia’s la­bor mar­ket of­ten in­volve eth­nic Ro­hingya, usu­ally Sunni Mus­lims from Myan­mar and Bangladesh. Ro­hingya are said to be de­scen­dants of sev­enth-cen­tury Arab sailors.

To­day, most of them lan­guish amid disease and squalor on both sides of the Myan­marBangladesh bor­der, but up to 2 mil­lion are sus­pected to be work­ing il­le­gally in Malaysia and Saudi Ara­bia.

Many Ro­hingya com­plain that Bangladesh makes it too dif­fi­cult for them to ob­tain pass­ports, so they rely on hu­man traf­fick­ers when mi­grat­ing for work.

Their plight be­gins when they will­ingly pay traf­fick­ers to put them on rick­ety boats for a per­ilous jour­ney across the Bay of Ben­gal to reach Thai­land, Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore or In­done­sia.

In the past few years, Thai authorities have been se­verely crit- icized for shov­ing boat­loads of ema­ci­ated, sun­burned Ro­hingya back to sea, with lit­tle food and wa­ter, to pre­vent them from seek­ing asy­lum in Thai­land.

Ro­hingya who do land in for­eign coun­tries are of­ten caged and even­tu­ally repa­tri­ated, or trapped in limbo as “state­less” mi­grants be­cause they have no ev­i­dence of cit­i­zen­ship.

Many Amer­i­can and other in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies out­source their prod­ucts and ser­vices in poorer coun­tries where traf­ficked work­ers are ex­ploited, but they rely on sub­con­trac­tors’ shell com­pa­nies to ar­range the grit­ti­est and most dan­ger­ous jobs.

That en­ables the cor­po­ra­tions’ U.S. and for­eign head­quar­ters to deny di­rect re­spon­si­bil­ity or fi­nan­cial li­a­bil­ity for any abuses.

The U.S. Traf­fick­ing Vic­tims Pro­tec­tion Act for­bids “in­vol­un­tary servi­tude, slav­ery, debt bondage and forced la­bor,” even if the worker “con­sented [or] par­tic­i­pated in a crime as a di­rect re­sult of be­ing traf­ficked.”

The prob­lem of hu­man traf­fick­ing of­ten spills into the United States.

On April 19, the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion filed law­suits charg­ing Global Hori­zons, a la­bor con­trac­tor based in Bev­erly Hills, Calif., with re­cruit­ing Thai work­ers and sub­ject­ing them to “phys­i­cal vi­o­lence,” di­lap­i­dated hous­ing, hunger, low salaries and other abuses on farms in Hawaii and Wash­ing­ton state.

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