WASHINGTON -- The lower house of the Malaysian parliament on Thursday passed an amendment to the country's anti-trafficking law that takes steps towards improving conditions for victims, as the nation faces pressure to improve its record on the issue in order to be included in a trade agreement with the United States and 10 other Pacific countries.
The measure still needs to be approved by Malaysia's Senate and presented to its king, though those steps are close to formalities in Malaysia's system. Human trafficking is already illegal in the country, but the new measure would provide more protections for victims by allowing NGOs to shelter them, giving victims the freedom to move and work while in government shelters and extending the period that investigators have to determine whether an individual is a victim of human trafficking.
The measure would also give victims transitional housing for one month, provide victims with an allowance, allow courts to order convicted traffickers to pay victims damages and formalize a "high-level" government committee to work on trafficking issues.
The U.S. State Department has named Malaysia as one of the worst offenders when it comes to human trafficking and forced labor, giving the country a "tier 3" designation.
Each year, the State Department places countries into three tiers based on their human rights records. Tier 3, the lowest, consists of countries that are not meeting the minimum standards to combat human trafficking as established by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and are not making significant efforts to do so.
In its 2014 Trafficking in Persons report on Malaysia, the department noted that the Malaysian government made "limited efforts to improve its flawed victim protection regime." The report noted that victims were detained in government shelters for sometimes over a year and were prohibited from moving freely or working outside the facility. Last month, Malaysian authorities discovered mass graves in the country believed to be used by human traffickers.
Malaysia may have been pushed to pass its new legislation after Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced an amendment into trade deal legislation that bars Malaysia from being a part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal being negotiated with 11 Pacific countries, because of its tier 3 designation.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said that while the measure was a welcome step, it would do little to remove Malaysia's tier 3 status on its own. "You can't just pass some law, you need to actually demonstrate serious and sustained effort to eliminate trafficking of persons," he said. "If somebody was an alcoholic, right, and they said, 'OK I'm gonna stop drinking,' and it was the first day after they stopped drinking, you wouldn't be like, 'They're cured.'"
The administration has called the Menendez legislation a poison pill, and negotiated with him to have it modified so that Malaysia could stay in the agreement as long as it showed improvement. Due to legislative dysfunction, however, that modification was not included in the bill, and his stronger version remains a part of the trade legislation now headed for the Senate.