On 14 March 2015, Leilei Liao was found in a restricted area at Malta International Airport. He lived at Leisure Clothing Ltd premises in Bulebel. He pleaded guilty and was fined €2,329.37 and faced imprisonment if he failed to pay.
Liao was probably one of hundreds of indentured workers at the notorious slave factory run by Han Bin. The inhuman squalid conditions in which Leisure Clothing workers lived at the Hal Far barracks and the exploitative paltry remuneration they received led to utter desperation. Who Liao was we will never know.
Whether he was attempting to flee is unclear. His case was never reported in the local media. He certainly would not have afforded to pay the fine. Leisure Clothing only paid its workers €140 every two months.
The tragic sentencing of an exploited worker was a gross miscarriage of justice. Instead of being provided with the necessary support to extricate himself from slave labour, he faced a fine he could not afford and, inevitably, jail. What happened to Liao? Where is he now?
Liao’s story is not unique. As soon as Joseph Muscat came to power in 2013, Malta started issuing visas to North Koreans. Over 90 visas were issued to North Koreans working at the Chinese state-owned Leisure clothing.
The terrible conditions at the factory were exposed when another worker was caught trying to escape from Malta using fake papers. When interrogated, she revealed she was charged $3,500 to get the job in Malta. The conditions offered were attractive but when she arrived, her passport was confiscated and the conditions didn’t match her contract. She was promised €600 euro per month but was only given €75. She worked between 12 and 15 hours per day with only one day off every fortnight.
As local and international media organisations reported on the enslavement of trafficked workers at Leisure Clothing, the company director, Han Bin, was indicted. While his workers toiled for a pittance, Bin received two salaries and an additional €30,000 euro in performance bonuses. He signed a purchase agreement for a property in St Ursula Street, Valletta for the price of €537,000 with MP Marlene Farrugia.
Han Bin was also photographed embracing disgraced minister Konrad Mizzi and his wife Sai. When Vice squad police sergeant Bernadette Valletta raided his home in San Gwann, Bin arrogantly asked her: “Does the Maltese government know you are searching my home?”. He had flight tickets to Rome and packed bags, ready to escape.
After his indictment on multiple counts of human trafficking, Bin was released on bail. Shortly after, his bail conditions were relaxed. Instead of signing the bail book four times weekly, Bin was only obliged to sign once. By March 2015, he was even allowed to travel to Italy for business, on the hilarious condition that on his return to Malta he would surrender his passport. Forty-two months after his arraignment, his lawyer objected to the freezing of assets of the company.
Meanwhile, the Leisure Clothing factory quietly shut down. The Labour government issued no statements. Where is Han Bin now?
Labour’s silence was no surprise. The Institute for Science and International Security published a report highlighting Malta’s violation of Security Council resolutions on North Korea. Malta was not only hosting North Korean joint ventures but providing state protection. Malta was one of only a few countries hosting North Korean slave labourers. The exploitation was condemned by the European Parliament and by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea.
Since then, several other cases have surfaced. In April 2020, Queenley Immigration PVT Ltd was charging Indian nurses and care-workers €5,700 for a job in Malta. This was part of the government’s plan to recruit 300 Indian nurses. Recruits were promised a 20-day processing period. This could only be possible through collusion with local officials and agents. In addition, nurses require registration with the Nursing Council to practice and such rapid processing would not be possible without intervention at the highest level. The COVID pandemic scuppered the plan.
Yet the number of care workers and nurses from South East Asia working in government institutions is considerable. Who is recruiting them? Is it government or is it private agencies? How much are these workers paying to get the job?
In May 2021, Recruitgiant, a Maltese agency, was accused of charging foreign workers a €3,500 fee to work in Malta as couriers. Reports of agencies retaining up to 50% of workers’ wages for securing jobs are rife.
Malta’s government has been lambasted by the US State Department for failing to meet minimum standards in key areas on human trafficking. It accused the Labour government of lacking coordination among ministries, not enforcing labour recruitment regulations and failing to monitor massage parlours.
“Perennial issues with rule of law, corruption, slow court proceedings and an understaffed police force continue to hamper prosecutions and convictions” the report concluded.
In 2019 there were no prosecutions for sex trafficking. In 2020, only two. There were no prosecutions of government officials. The single investigation of a former policeman launched in 2004 is still ongoing. A court hearing scheduled for April 2019 was deferred. No further action has been taken.
Malta’s government did not cooperate in any joint international trafficking investigations. Identification of victims has steadily decreased over the years. Out of 2,300 irregular migrants arriving in Malta, not a single trafficking victim was identified in 2020. The government did not award restitution to any victims.
The government inter-ministerial anti-trafficking committee met only once. The anti-trafficking task force did not meet at all. The government adopted a new anti-trafficking national action plan – but it does not include any actions. No benchmarks have been set. The government’s anti-trafficking training budget is a paltry €16,000 – less than the cost of one Labour press conference.
No wonder Labour spends such massive sums of money to convince us of its competence.