The International Day for the Abolition of Modern Slavery, observed on the 2nd of December, commemorates the anniversary of the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (Resolution 317(IV) of 2 December 1949).
This significant day is dedicated to confronting the contemporary villains of our era: human trafficking, sexual exploitation, the distressing reality of child labour, forced marriages, and the sinister recruitment of children for use in armed conflicts.
Unfortunately, the haunting memory of Wang Kelian serves as a stark reminder that modern slavery persists in Malaysia. As recently as 2020, instances of this reprehensible practice have unfolded right under our very noses.
It is high time for us to confront and address these hidden horrors.
The Untold Story Of Malaya’s Orang Asli Slaves
Do you know that there is a Malaysian community in South Africa?
These Cape Malays are descendants of Malaysians, Indonesians, Singaporeans and Filipinos who exposed the Dutch rulership over Southeast Asia and were subsequently sent to South Africa to slave away as labourers.
Since the 15th Century, many European powers such as Spain, England and the Netherlands have depended on slavery to fuel their economies. And Malaya, like other colonised countries, was not spared.
But it wasn’t just the Europeans who owned slaves; many Malayan Malays also owned slaves themselves!
In the 1870s, a war known as the Perang Sangkil occurred, pitting the Malays against the Orang Asli. “Sangkil” was an Orang Asli term used to refer to people originating from the Indonesian Islands, particularly the Rawa and Mandailing regions. It is believed that the Sangkil were the ones responsible for attacking and enslaving the Orang Asli.
During the conflict, the Orang Asli had to continuously move from one place to another to avoid enslavement. Those who dared to fight back were mercilessly killed. Those who chose to resist were ruthlessly killed. According to an account in a book documenting the events of the Perang Sangkil, the Orang Asli were often sold as slaves or concubines to Malay Pembesars.
This culture of enslaving Orang Aslis had been going on long enough that it’d been observed and recorded by the British officials who were stationed here. Among them was Perak Resident J.W.W Birch, who described the slavery as follows:
“… by which men and women of the country of the Sakkais or wild people of the interior are captured after being hunted down, and are then sold, and made slaves. Their poor people, from what I’ve seen, are worse treated than any other slaves.” – J.W.W Birch wrote in his journal, quoted from Taming the Wild: Aborigines and Racial Knowledge in Colonial Malaya by Sandra Khor Manickam
Oddly enough, given their dependence on slave labour, it was the British colonial government that ultimately abolished slavery in its colonies (including Malaysia) with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
Wang Kelian And The Dark Legacy Of Human Trafficking
Although the Perang Sangkil is now little more than a historical footnote, slavery remains a problem in Malaysia. And it can come in many forms, including human trafficking.
Human trafficking is ranked as the world’s third-largest criminal activity, trailing only behind drug and arms trafficking. In Malaysia, there has been a concerning increase in human trafficking cases, with 165 recorded in 2020, a stark contrast to the mere 17 cases reported in 2008. Additionally, the smuggling of migrants has surged, with the number of cases rising significantly from three in 2010 to 265 in 2020.
According to statistics from the Council for Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (MAPO), between 2015 and June 2021, a total of 1,854 trafficking cases were reported, leading to the arrest of 2,732 individuals in connection with these cases.
Malaysia, however, has evolved into a conduit for human trafficking, with forced labour being the prevailing form of this crime in the country, as reported by the US State Department. In 2021, Malaysia’s status dropped to “Tier 3” in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, primarily due to the country’s failure to distinguish adequately between human trafficking and migrant smuggling offences. Additionally, it did not effectively address or criminally pursue credible allegations related to labour trafficking.
The sectors primarily where we see the greatest forced labour — which is the predominant form of crime within Malaysia — include palm oil and agriculture plantations, construction sites, in the electronics, garment and rubber product industries. – Kari Johnstone, Acting Director of the State Department’s trafficking office
The horrific discovery at Wang Kelian represents the very bottom of this modern depravity.
In March 2015, illegal immigrants’ transit camps and 147 mass graves were uncovered in Wang Kelian, Perlis, near the border between Malaysia and Thailand. In these graves, the skeletal remains of approximately 130 individuals were discovered, with the victims believed to be members of the ethnic Rohingya community from Myanmar and Bangladesh
Even today, Malaysia continues to be at war with human traffickers. And many continue to fall to these traffickers’ deprivations.
In the past year, a 14-year-old boy from Kuala Lumpur experienced a harrowing incident. Lured by the promise of a job paying RM1,800 per month, he left home and was almost trafficked to Thailand. This young boy, who had been heavily engrossed in online video games and frequently requested money from his family to top up his game credits, decided to leave home upon the recommendation of an online friend.
However, once he reached the meeting point with his friend, a chilling turn of events unfolded. He found himself imprisoned in a wooden house, with the terrifying prospect of being sold to Thailand. Fortunately, his family, with the assistance of the police, managed to locate him, thanks in part to his vigilant teacher, who engaged in online games with the victim, and also through the efforts of his friends who were contacted.
Forced Into Prostitution
Modern slavery isn’t just forced labour. For many trafficking victims, they may end up in sex slavery.
ECPAT International, formerly known as End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, in its 2016 report entitled “Sex Trafficking of Children in Malaysia”, noted that Malaysian children and women were trafficked to Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Canada, the US, Europe and Australia for prostitution. But these children weren’t just trafficked overseas, as the report also noted that girls from indigenous groups and rural areas in Malaysia were also internally trafficked for the same purposes.
Children are especially vulnerable to being trafficked because they are often uneducated, easy to overpower and easy to convince. Children may also be in a position where they feel they must help to support their families and may be sold or sent abroad by family members to do so. Street children, children in refugee camps, and children whose family and community life have been disrupted and who do not have someone to look out for them are all especially vulnerable to human trafficking. – “Sex Trafficking of Children in Malaysia”
It’s The New 20s And Slavery Still Exists In Our Country!
As recently as 2020, we continue to hear horror stories of hundreds, if not thousands, trapped in slavery. Such was the case of the now infamous glove factory slavery incident.
In December 2020, officials raided latex glove maker Brightway Holdings near Kuala Lumpur in order to find potential Covid hotspots. What they found instead were workers l forced to live in shipping containers, under conditions so squalid that human resources minister M. Saravanan later likened them to “modern slavery.”
Infuriatingly, this entire atrocity could’ve been prevented as inspectors from a social auditing firm – private contractors that help companies monitor environmental, social and other ethical standards in industries from toys to palm oil – had visited the same three facilities nineteen months earlier and had written three reports condemning the site for violating labour laws. It’s truly unbelievable that it took a Covid hotspot check in order for this tragedy to become public.
But Brightway wasn’t the only glove maker to get into trouble for using indentured workers. In 2021, Top Glove, the world’s largest manufacturer of rubber gloves, was banned from exporting its products from Malaysia to the United States after the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) found that its products are made using forced and indentured labour.
The majority of workers at Top Glove are migrants from Nepal and Bangladesh, many of whom were forced to pay exorbitant fees just to secure their jobs, leaving them vulnerable to debt bondage. These workers alleged that they were put to work for 12-hour shifts six days a week – with some earning as little as RM40 a day – and lived in squalid dormitories shared by more than 20 workers.
Back in 2014, there were countless migrant workers forced into indentured servitude towards Malaysian industries, with the electronics industry being particularly rife with modern-day slaves. A 2014 report by Verité, an NGO working on supply chain accountability, found that forced labour is present in the supply chains of a wide cross-section of household electronics brands, which use Malaysian factories to produce billions of pounds worth of goods every year.
The NGO interviewed more than 500 workers and found that debt bondage and the illegal confiscation of passports and documents were the main drivers of this “systemic” forced labour, trapping workers in low-paid jobs and preventing them from returning home. Once trapped in forced labour, the workers are exposed to even more abuses such as being forced to live in cramped and dangerous accommodations while working excessive overtime under the threat of losing their jobs, which would leave them saddled with large debts they won’t be able to pay off.
Unfortunately, forced labour continues to be the primary form of human trafficking in Malaysia, as indicated by the U.S. State Department’s annual report. The report further noted that Malaysia was downgraded to ‘Tier 3’ in the closely watched 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report due to Malaysia’s ongoing conflation of human trafficking and migrant smuggling crimes, as well as its inadequate response to and pursuit of credible allegations related to labour trafficking.
The sectors primarily where we see the greatest forced labour – which is the predominant form of crime within Malaysia – include palm oil and agriculture plantations, construction sites, in the electronics, garment and rubber product industries. – Kari Johnstone, Acting Director of the State Department’s trafficking office
The Long Road to Liberation
In 2022, former Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin reaffirmed Malaysia’s commitment to comprehensively combat modern slavery and ensure the protection of its victims. He emphasised that the government’s approach extended beyond merely managing the entry of foreign workers, as it aimed to implement effective measures to address the issues of human trafficking and forced labour.
So that is why I have come with senior officials from our country. I brought them to solve legal problems and at the same time to inform what we are doing. – Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin, former Home Minister
2022 saw much improvement in the fight against human trafficking and by, extension, modern slavery, as demonstrated through the amendment to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Migrant Smuggling Act 2007 (ATIPSOM). Parliament had previously passed improvements to ATIPSOM in 2010 and 2015, with the latest amendment occured in December 2021 through the ATIPSOM (Amendment) Act (2022). The 2022 Act included 17 amendments, including the removal of the mandatory requirement of “coercion” in trafficking and added on further forms of trafficking.
It was thanks to Malaysia addressing trauma, victim identification and reforming the ATIPSOM anti-trafficking laws that the country was elevated from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watch List in the United States State Department’s Annual TIP report in 2023, something we should be proud of.
Our government’s dedication to ending modern slavery in our country is made apparent with the launching of the National Action Plan Against Forced Labour 2021-2025 in November 2021 and the ratification of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Protocol 2014 (ILO P29) in March 2021.
Despite these improvements, the Malaysian government remains woefully ill-prepared against modern slavery, despite various laws being enacted by the ILO.
The government’s victim protection efforts remained largely inadequate and some rehabilitation services such as medical care, telephone calls, freedom of movement, and the issuance of work permits were inconsistently implemented, if at all.
The government stopped funding non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide shelter. Corruption related to processes for foreign nationals to work in Malaysia remained pervasive and the government did not report initiating new prosecutions or convicting any complicit officials during the reporting period. – US Department of State
More recently, rights groups such as ALIRAN and Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor have called into question laws allowing 104 hours of overtime per month, demanding that said laws be amended as they believe that allowing these laws will only propagate forced labour in Malaysia.
The group’s statement reads:
In Malaysia, overtime is not limited to exceptional situations but sometimes becomes the norm. Even though Malaysia has reduced weekly working hours from 48 to 45 beginning January 2023, it is useless if the legal overtime limit remains 104 hours a month.
Excessive overtime is among the 11 indicators of forced labour classified by the ILO, which also include abuse of vulnerability; deception; restriction of movement; isolation; physical and sexual violence; intimidation and threats; retention of identity documents; withholding of wages; abusive working and living conditions; and debt bondage.
This case demonstrates that despite the efforts our government is making, Malaysia is still an environment that enables the propagation of modern slavery. Sadly, a report by international NGO Free the Slaves estimated that 202,000 people are currently trapped in various forms of modern slavery in Malaysia, with a majority of those victims being among the estimated 1.5 million documented and an even greater number of undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia.
Thus everyone, the government, NGOs and the public, must do their hardest to combat modern slavery to truly end it.
Irene Xavier: A Lifelong Crusader Against Modern Slavery
This day isn’t complete without honouring the efforts of long-time rights activist Irene Xavier in her decades-long fight against modern slavery.
Co-founder of Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS), the 72-year-old has been fighting for the oppressed for close to four decades now.
I started my activism in 1984 as a student activist fighting for the workers. I felt that they were facing lots of problems in Malaysia. Many workers are being brought into this country. Many of them don’t know what they’re getting into. They just trust their agents, and the contracts they were given. – Irene Xavier, human rights activist and co-founder of Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor
Irene noted that one of the factors behind the proliferation of forced labour in Malaysia is the lack of proper enforcement and provision of the appropriate laws.
The procedures and processes with which an enslaved person can file a complaint are not very clear. – Irene Xavier, human rights activist and co-founder of Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor
Typically, it falls under the responsibility of the labour department to handle these matters. However, according to Irene, the department is understaffed.
They don’t have much time to go to workplaces to investigate allegations. Workers are often rescued by NGOs who put them into shelters before lodging a complaint. – Irene Xavier, human rights activist and co-founder of Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor
Although she believes that this country is relatively better than many neighbouring nations in combating modern-day slavery, there is still much room for improvement.
The slave trade is going to be difficult to stop because people are relying on it,” she stressed. “It will go on until there is political will to stop this. – Irene Xavier, human rights activist and co-founder of Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor
As such, she encourages the public to take up the fight against this problem, saying that even the average Malaysian can contribute in small but meaningful ways.
The public should keep an eye out for cases. Talk, if there’s an opportunity to talk, to workers in trouble. Even if you don’t want to personally intervene, complain to somebody else – NGOs, the government. Those are things that you, the public, can do. – Irene Xavier, human rights activist and co-founder of Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor
Organisations Fighting Against Modern Slavery
If you find evidence of human trafficking or forced labour, don’t be afraid to contact the following organisations and report your findings. You may end up saving several lives in the process.
Tenaganita has been committed to safeguarding and advancing the rights of women, migrants, and refugees since 1991. The organisation is devoted to providing assistance, advocating for, and protecting migrants, refugees, women, and children from exploitation, abuse, discrimination, slavery, and human trafficking. Their goal is to create inclusive spaces where women, migrants, and refugees can collectively explore their full potential.
So, if you know a victim and would like to report abuse, call them at +603 7770 3671 / 3691 or report it on their website. You can also lend your time to volunteer.
#2: Project Liber8
Project Liber8 is an online platform that champions the rights of migrants and refugees, educating and empowering young minds to understand and change negative perceptions with more empathy and compassion.
Among the programmes Liber8 created to get more youths involved in fighting against modern slavery is #SlaveFreeMalaysia. They’ve also worked with UNICEF to raise awareness about human trafficking through the Advoc8 on the Road initiative.
Explore our sources:
- CILISOS. (2017). THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW MALAYS IN THE 1800S USED ORANG ASLI AS SLAVES. Link.
- Bernama. (2021). Eradicating human trafficking, smuggling activities. The Star. Link.
- Reuters. (2021). Forced labour main human trafficking crime in Malaysia, says US. Malay Mail. Link.
- C. Hector. (2020). Wang Kelian: Still no justice after five years, 130 deaths. Malaysiakini. Link.
- F. Fong. (2022). 14-Year-Old KL Boy Falls Victims To Job Scam And Nearly Trafficked To Thailand. The Rakyat Post. Link.
- S. Khidir. (2019). Slavery in Malaysia. The ASEAN Post. Link.
- A. Ananthalakshmi, L. Lee & M.M. Chu. (2021). Insight: ‘Slavery’ found at a Malaysian glove factory. Why didn’t the auditor see it? Reuters. Link.
- P. Pattisson. (2021). US bars rubber gloves from Malaysian firm due to ‘evidence of forced labour’. The Guardian. Link.
- A. Kelly. (2014). Modern-day slavery rife in Malaysia’s electronics industry. The Guardian. Link.
- M.M. Chu & C. Setboonsarng. (2021). Forced labour main human trafficking crime in Malaysia, U.S. says. Reuters. Link.
- Bernama. (2022). Malaysia seeks holistic solutions to end modern day slavery. The Star. Link.
- H.B. Hamid. (2023). Fight human trafficking. New Straits Times. Link.
- The Star. (2022). MALAYSIA TAKES A STAND ON FORCED LABOUR. Link.
- F. Zainal. (2023). Laws allowing excessive overtime makes Malaysia party to propagating forced labour. The Star. Link.
- N. Wong. (2023). An activist’s decades-long struggle against modern-day slavery in Malaysia. FMT. Link.
- T. Wira. (2020). It’s 2020 and modern slavery still exists in Malaysia. Unicef Children 4 Change. Link.