Malaysia's Human Resource Ministry kicked off the annual ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labor on Monday by highlighting a new recruitment system for the nation's approximately four million foreign workers. Frequent charges of abuse of these worked have earned the Southeast Asian country a spot on the US State Department's human trafficking watch list for years.
The new plan streamlines foreign workers' application process by recruiting online, potentially decreasing costs and time for employers and employees alike.
One benefit: fewer opportunities for agents to take advantage of migrants. Simplifying legal channels may discourage migrants from entering the country illegally, with or without smugglers, who all too often take migrants on a journey that begins and ends in unfulfilled promises or indentured labor.
Online applications stand to benefit thousands of would-be migrants – although not, perhaps, those who need it most.
In remarks published by Bernama, a state-owned news agency, Malaysian Minister for Human Resources Datuk Richard Riot Jaem suggested the online system would reduce debt bondage, the exorbitant fees owed to recruiters which often ensnare workers in abusive situations.
The announcement of the new program may be timed to bolster US officials' upgraded anti-trafficking ratings for Malaysia, which were fiercely disputed by human rights analysts when the State Department's annual report was published in late July.
In Malaysia, foreign workers – roughly two million legal and two million illegal – make up one-fifth of the country's workforce. Migrants are drawn from other Asian countries, primarily Indonesia, but also come from several poorer nations, like Bangladesh and Myanmar, or Nepal, where 40 percent of emigrants head to Malaysia.
According to the Kathmandu Post, the current visa processing system can take six months, whereas the online application might be as quick as 48 hours, thanks to cooperation between home country and destination country databases.
The service will be free to Malaysian employers, who must prove their ability to provide safe housing for workers, in addition to fair wages and medical care.
Critics of Malaysia's historically lackluster efforts to protect trafficking victims may want to wait and see its effects before offering praise, particularly in the wake of controversy after the State Department bumped the country's human trafficking assessment from Level 3, the most severe, up to Level 2.
It's a small but critical change: In June, Congress gave President Obama the go-ahead to pursue trade negotiation, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so long as no Tier 3 countries were on the list.
The State Department's report notes progress, but identifies numerous ongoing problems, from the need for "victim-centered" policies to calls to enforce the ban on confiscating worker passports.
Human rights advocates remained unimpressed with Malaysia's reforms.
"You couldn't have devised a worse system if you tried," Asia Deputy Directory Phil Robertson said in an interview with Free Malaysia Today. "Not only is it rife with corruption and human rights abuses, it also outsources the responsibility of hiring the migrant workers to shadowy employers and prevents the establishment of any systematic regulation."
In 2010, Human Rights Watch denounced Malaysia's entire migrant worker program as an "excellent system of human trafficking" with rampant debt bondage.
Human rights advocates criticized the State Department for letting politics trump victims' needs, while a Reuters investigation revealed that senior officials overrode the US government's own rights analysts, who opposed upgrading Malaysia to Level 2.
Mr. Robertson was skeptical of government efforts to reform recruitment, calling even legal agencies "fly-by-night operators."
Kathleen Newland, senior fellow and co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., says that streamlining worker applications "is an important step in the right direction" to "liberate" migrants from the cycle of smuggling, debt, and abuse, but predicts that the new program will face difficulties in reaching the most vulnerable potential victims.
Their first dilemma: limited Internet access – and literacy.
An online platform could simplify the mounds of paperwork required for a work visa, which often push migrants towards illegal immigration, she says, but a web connection may prove hard to come by in migrants' home countries.
And even for workers with the Internet, exploitative recruiters, both legal or illegal, could find ways to take advantage: Although the vast majority of Malaysia's foreign workers have basic literacy, only half have more than a primary education.
Ultimately, Ms. Newland suggests, the government can only do so much as long as demand for work continues to outpace the number of legal jobs for foreigners, driving workers towards risky illegal alternatives that can, at first glance, seem less onerous than dealing with official documents and fees.
For the time being, Malaysia's bare-bones working conditions for migrants – often bordering on forced labor, and frequently begun with dangerous, packed-boat journeys – are still not enough to keep them from "just get[ting] on the boat" without papers, Newland says, pushing them further along the path to exploitation.
Worldwide, governments looking to tackle migrant labor abuse are being urged by non-government organization- and industry-led initiatives to eliminate jobseeker fees entirely. The International Recruitment Integrity System, for example, is a voluntary campaign to encourage the "gold standard" of companies paying for headhunter services, rather than the other way around.
"The fact is that Malaysia cannot run its economy without migrant workers," Robertson told Free Malaysia Today. "To continue treating them so shoddily is also extremely short-sighted."