Scorecard diplomacy?: Two countries’ knee-jerk reactions to the TIP report

Photo: Firdaus Latif/CC BY 2.0

Malaysia and Thailand launch a major crackdown on illegal foreign workers in response to the recent Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

By Tan Zhi Xin, edited by Anne Hwarng

Malaysian authorities have rounded up more than 5000 illegal migrant workers since 1 July in an operation to crack down on undocumented workers. The relatively developed nation is not the only one cracking down on illegal migrant workers. Thailand is also doing likewise.

The crackdown comes at a time when Malaysia and Thailand have been downgraded from the second to the third tier in the latest Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released by the US.  The report grades countries based on how well or poorly they have been doing in combating human trafficking.

There are three tiers, the third being the worst possible ranking with countries such as Iran, North Korea and Syria – countries that are infamous for their violations and disregard for human rights.

A third tier ranking is a possible ground for economic sanctions, including blocking various types of aid or withdrawal of US support for loans from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Not only so, a third tier ranking will also drive out both established and potential investors due to a lack of trust.

Considering how the global economy is turning to favour global investments, as well as how Asian economies are at a relatively advantaged position vis-à-vis Western economies – owing to US President Donald Trump’s geopolitical policies – it is no wonder Malaysia and Thailand are so eager to salvage their reputation in the international community.

Abuse of undocumented workers is widespread in the region

According to 2015 World Bank calculations, there are more than 10.2 million migrant workers in Southeast Asia and almost seven million migrated within the region. Of the 10 ASEAN members, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines are the main source countries, whereas Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia are the host countries.

Many migrant workers in the region are undocumented. In Malaysia, as many as half of the four million migrant workers are undocumented. This means at least one in every ten persons is working illegally in Malaysia. The importing of foreign labour in Malaysia is in itself a lucrative business encouraged by corruption and loose immigration and border control.

“While abuses are particularly egregious in Malaysia, migrant workers tend to be treated exceedingly poorly throughout ASEAN,” says ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) Board Member Eva Kusuma Sundari, also a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives.

There has been a harrowing sprout of revelations regarding abuse of migrant workers in the three main host countries, especially in Thailand. The Land of Smiles is ironically not full of smiles. It is accused of slavery and failure to address the issue of trafficking and murder in its billion-dollar fishing industry. 

Ranking of the TIP report is tied to the so-called “scorecard diplomacy”

IMF predicts the Asian countries to be the “bright spot” of the global economy. “Right now, foreign investors are in a really good mood — not just about Malaysia, but generally. But we know that those moods change and there are many factors out there that could push global confidence in a direction that is less optimistic,” says IMF deputy director of research, Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti.

A bad international reputation concerning human rights sets off alarm bells for established and potential investors. Few investors would be willing to pour in millions of dollars into an economy that warrants little trust internationally.

The desperate need to salvage its international reputation following a demotion in the TIP report has driven the two major ASEAN countries to launch such major crackdown.

This effect is what author Judith Kelley calls, the “scorecard diplomacy”. Kelley argues unconventionally that public grades are important insofar as they exert pressure on the countries to improve their behaviour and address the problem in question.

“Scorecard diplomacy uses reputation like a sculptor might use a chisel. By using it to target his force, the sculptor delivers his power more effectively than the use of his hammer alone,” says Kelley.

A country ranked at the bottom of a well-respected scorecard, say “Ease of Doing Business”, might find its foreign investments plummeting due to a loss of trust.

Likewise, being ranked in tier three of the TIP report blatantly confers upon these countries the label “disregard and violation of human rights”. Consequently, these countries might find themselves being denied international aid or loans, or worse, face economic sanctions. It is for this reason that Thailand and Malaysia unanimously launched the crackdown on illegal migrants in their respective countries, sending thousands of undocumented migrant workers home.

Towards a brighter future for migrant workers in Southeast Asia

Lawmakers repeatedly reiterated the need for regional solutions to address the abuse of migrant workers in Southeast Asia. Simon Roughneen, Asia regional correspondent at Nikkei, argues in a lengthy post that while governments are independently combating this problem with continued arrests on their home turfs, there are fading prospects for cooperation between regional governments concerning a set of region-wide legal norms to safeguard migrant rights.

In reality, the harsh actions are simply a distinctive way for Malaysia and Thailand to tell the world that they are not nonchalant about human rights, and will remain a safe country for investments.

Generally, with Donald Trump at the helm, the global economy is visibly turning to favour the Asian economies. The ASEAN members are well aware of this. As Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatursripitak acknowledges, “opportunities are shifting from the West to the East”.

While these major countries might not be willing to cooperate regionally in terms of agreeing to a set of region-wide legal norms, the individual countries are taking the initiative to combat the sticky issue on their own shores.

Whether this is an effect of Kelley’s “scorecard diplomacy” does not matter. At the end of the day, what really matters is that the rights of migrant workers be safeguarded.