IF the 2016 Global Slavery Index is accurate, two-thirds of world’s modern-day slaves are found in Asian countries, mostly victims of human trafficking. The illicit market in exploited people is so lucrative that it is said to generate over $150 billion in profits worldwide—bigger than the GDP of countries like Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Hungary and Oman. This explains why human trafficking has become an endemic crime globally.
In the Asean region alone, thousands of people are trafficked from, through, or to Asean countries each year.
With a majority of Asean member states being source countries for human trafficking, it is indeed timely that the Philippines recently hosted the “Asean Regional Workshop on Effective Investigation and Prosecution of Trafficking-in-Persons for Labor Exploitation,” for Asean member countries to discuss the labor dimensions of trafficking in persons and how investigation and prosecution can be enhanced within the realm of criminal, labor, and civil law regimes in order to protect migrant workers from exploitation.
Trafficking in persons takes many forms. The more common modus operandi I’ve encountered at the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) is the deployment of underage females as domestic workers using a genuine passport bearing the photograph, name and details belonging to another person. Once in the destination country, they are transferred or “sold” by their employer to new employers, sometimes in another country, where they are stripped of all identification to dissuade them from complaining or running away.
Due to the fear of being deported or physically abused, Filipino migrant workers are often left with no option but to endure the abuse. The violations would only be brought into light when the abuses become excessive and the worker is able to escape and complain.
Of course, when we talk about trafficking, the first thing that comes to mind is the Middle East. That, however, is not entirely accurate. While it is true that workers in the Asean member countries migrate to countries throughout the world, a large chunk of our region’s work force migrate to other Asean member states, particularly Thailand, Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia.
Thailand’s economic development and location among neighboring countries with limited development and political instability has made it a magnet for several types of migrants: asylum seekers, regular labor migrants and irregular migrants. Brunei has long relied on migrant labor as a result of its small population providing a limited labor force, coupled with the fact that most workers in the oil-rich nation are employed in the public sector.
Singapore’s status as a regional economic powerhouse and its limited population has made it an ideal destination for migrant workers, many from Southeast Asia. In fact, foreign labor comprise around one-fourth of the city state’s 2.3 million-strong workforce. Despite its first-world image, Singapore’s labor laws are viewed by human rights advocates as quite archaic.
Domestic workers, construction workers, restaurant workers and other low- wage migrants (carrying “work permits”) do not enjoy the same freedoms and protection as professional and technical workers immigrating on work passes. Work permit holders reportedly cannot bring family members with them, and are barred from marrying Singaporeans. Meanwhile, domestic workers are supposedly prohibited from becoming pregnant or “breaking up families.”
Malaysia, on the other hand, relies on migrant workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries (primarily Asean) to meet labor demands, particularly in areas of manufacturing, construction, agriculture and the domestic sector.
Of the approximately 400,000 domestic workers in Malaysia, more than 90 percent are Indonesian. This is a particular concern shared by many Asean member countries because of the growing number of trafficked and exploited women and girls as domestic workers.
Domestic workers are frequently excluded from formal labor protections in many Asean countries. They are often misinformed about their conditions of employment and the work required of them. They usually work very long hours, are denied rest days and freedom of movement, not provided with suitable accommodation or sleeping areas, and paid late, or less than the agreed amount, or sometimes, not at all.
Compounding the problem is that in most Asean countries, victims of trafficking are seen more as undocumented workers and illegal migrants who should be punished rather than helped. Employers who take on illegal migrants are rarely punished for keeping their workers in debt bondage or involuntary servitude.
Joining the global initiative to end this modern-day slavery, the Asean member countries have signed the Asean Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP). The good news is that ACTIP has entered into force after the Philippines became the sixth Asean member state to ratify the convention last February.
ACTIP is the first regionally binding instrument on trafficking in persons, and is aimed at preventing and combating trafficking in persons, especially women and children; ensuring just and effective punishment of traffickers; protecting and assisting victims of trafficking in persons with full respect for their human rights; and promoting cooperation in the fight against trafficking in persons among the Asean member-states.
Since the fight against trafficking in persons requires inter-country and multi-sectoral collaboration, capacity-building activities like the recent regional workshop allow Asean member-states to share good practices, and more importantly, identify areas where there can be effective domestic and regional cooperation and coordination, especially since human-trafficking is mostly a transnational crime.