The United States political regime is a fusion of liberalism and imperialism, and its State Department exhibits this contradiction.  While most of its functions are straightforwardly imperial and harmful to the world, there are a few activities the institution undertakes that might be said to be positive.  The State Department’s annual report on human rights is one of these.  Another is the agency’s “Trafficking in Persons Report,” better known as “TIP” or the “Slavery Report,” the latest of which came out a few days ago.

In the latest report, the Philippines maintained its Tier 2 status, while ASEAN partners Malaysia and Thailand were demoted to the lowest grade, Tier 3.

Malaysia: a Well Deserved Demotion

In my view, Malaysia’s demotion is well-deserved.  Malaysia is simply a haven for traffickers, who use practically the whole country as a transit point for Filipino women workers being smuggled out of the so-called back door of Zamboanga, Sulu, and Tawi Tawi. 

As related to me by a number of OFWs I interviewed in Damascus in 2012, they were kept for weeks at safehouses near Kuala Lumpur before being flown to Dubai and from there to Damascus, where they landed in the midst of a civil war.  Accounts of beatings and shakedowns of migrant workers by Malaysian police regularly reach my office.  As Malaysian Member of Parliament Charles Santiago asserts, “The complicity of Malaysian authorities in human slavery should be an embarrassment to all Malaysians.”

Thailand: Trafficking Unchecked

As for Thailand, the activities of labor and sex traffickers go virtually unchecked, the victims being mainly Burmese and Cambodians.  According to the State Department report, Thailand is the destination of thousands of foreign workers “who are forced, coerced, or defrauded into labor or exploited in the sex trade.”  It continues: “Anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts remained insufficient compared to the size of the problem in Thailand, and corruption at all levels hampered the success of these efforts.”

According to Dr. Supang Chantavanich, director of the Asian Research Center for Migration at Chulalongkorn University, Thais have to recognize that the problems identified in the report are “weak points in Thailand’s attempts to suppress human trafficking.”  The problems mainly stem from “poor preventive measures which allow people smugglers, labor recruiters, and brokers to freely operate without proper controls from the state.”

Philippines:  A Contradictory Assessment

The Philippines was upgraded from the Tier 2 “Watch List” to Tier 2 in 2011.  It maintains that status in the latest report.  According to a State Department press release, “The TIP report noted that the Philippines made significant efforts to combat trafficking; however, the Government of the Philippines does not yet fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking…In the report, the U.S. government commended efforts by the Government of the Philippines to implement anti-trafficking laws and policies nationwide and noted that funding for the Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) nearly doubled to the equivalent of approximately U.S. $2.4 million dollars in 2013. The report also recognized government efforts to prevent the trafficking of overseas workers, proactively identify and rescue victims exploited within the country, and convict 31 trafficking offenders compared to 25 during the previous year.”

A close reading of the report itself, however, reveals an evaluation that is contradictory.  On the one hand, the report claims that that the “government continued its robust efforts to prevent human trafficking during the reporting period.”  A few paragraphs later, it says, “Despite significant local and foreign demand in the country’s thriving commercial sex trade, the government’s efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts in the Philippines were negligible. Victims continue to be trafficked each day in well-known, highly visible establishments, most of which have never been the target of anti-trafficking law enforcement action.”

The report notes that the government “conducted public campaigns utilizing television, social media, and other platforms to raise awareness of the dangers of trafficking and how to seek help, and numerous government agencies conducted seminars and anti-trafficking training sessions for government officials and community members.”  This is the problem:  as in the area of disaster risk reduction, it’s been all seminars and very little enforcement and prosecution.

Protecting Traffickers and Sex Offenders

As someone who has kept track of the trafficking of our OFWs, all I can say is that enforcement and prosecution is dismal at best.  For instance, despite massive evidence on trafficking involving Embassy personnel in Kuwait gathered by Assistant Secretary Lila Shahani of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Department of Justice has dragged its feet on investigating wrongdoings and practically absolved all higher-level personnel from prosecution.

How can the Department of Foreign Affairs inspire confidence in OFWs when it conceals the fact that one of its personnel raped an OFW in the Teheran Embassy?  As for the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), it has behaved as a mafia protecting its people from efforts by the House Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs (COWA) to bring its erring personnel to justice.  The labor attaché in Saudi Arabia accused of trying to bribe an OFW who brought charges of attempted rape against his driver received a penalty of one-month suspension, while an assistant labor attaché in the same post who tried to rape an OFW right in the Embassy labor office in Riyadh was given a simple “reprimand at first instance,’ whatever that is!  Such taps on the wrist, as the Inquirer put it in a recent editorial, “make the blood boil.”  It continued: “Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz’s defense is that the women’s failure to give further testimony weakened the case. This is shocking and outrageous. The DOLE has all the resources it needs to pursue the case—if it wants to. The sexual assault of OFWs by the officials sworn to protect them is terrible enough, but the failure to punish such lowlifes is even more so.”

Such outrageous acts meant to protect sexual criminals on the part of key government agencies underline the fact that the situation with respect to enforcement, in fact, worsened overall in 2013 and tempt one to the conclusion that the Philippines should have been demoted to its place on the Tier 2 Watch List it occupied prior to 2011.  The Philippines probably retained its status owing to a desire of the State Department to support President Aquino’s anti-corruption campaign.  I understand that, but there are other ways to support Mr. Aquino’s drive against corruption than giving the Philippines a passing grade on the anti-slavery front.

As for me, I will live with the country’s Tier 2 grade for the time being and continue to hope that our officials will take the 2014 ranking as an opportunity to finally take the necessary steps to make labor and sex traffickers unwelcome in the country.  Failure to do so over the next year will prompt me to personally push the State Department to bring the country back to the Tier 2 Watch List in the 2015 report.  And that’s a promise.

* columnist Walden Bello is the chairman of the Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs of the House of Representatives

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