Reform migrant workers’ management system to tackle forced labour accusations

Photograph: The roads travelled for work - Women Migrant Workers in Singapore and Malaysia by UN Women Gallery/Flickr

Malaysia must eliminate forced labour in the country to recover from its downgrade into the lowest tier in the 2021 Trafficking in Persons report and it can do so more effectively by working closely with the Labour Law Reform Coalition (LLRC) that comprises trade unions and labour rights NGOs.

While we appreciate recent efforts to improve labour standards in the country, we ask the government to talk to the trade unions and labour activists to stop this slide in labour conditions for the millions of workers, both unionised and non-unionised (including those who fear to join trade unions).

Malaysia was recently downgraded to Tier 3 in the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report. This is really unfortunate because trade unions and labour activists have been warning the Malaysian government about the matter for at least the past three decades.

The report says:

“The overwhelming majority of victims are among the estimated two million documented and an even greater number of undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia…. Employers, employment agents, and illegal sub-agents exploit some migrants in labour trafficking primarily through debt-based coercion when workers are unable to pay the fees for recruitment and associated travel…. Malaysian agents administer additional fees after arrival – in some cases leading to forced labour through debt-based coercion.

“Employers utilize practices indicative of forced labour, such as restrictions on movement, violating contracts, wage fraud, assault, threats of deportation, the imposition of significant debts, and passport retention – which remained widespread – to exploit some migrant workers in labour trafficking on oil palm and agricultural plantations; at construction sites; in the electronics, garment, and rubber-product industries; and in homes as domestic workers.”

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The report points to the system that governs migrant workers and their protection. In order to address the problems revealed in the report and protect workers’ rights, the LLRC calls on the government to comprehensively reform the migrant workers’ management system, instead of piecemeal measures that prove ineffective and fail to eliminate forced labour.

It is high time to transfer the jurisdiction of the migrant workers’ management system to the Ministry of Human Resources to curb corruption and malpractice. The current exploitative recruitment system has imposed on migrant workers’ debt bondage and subjected them to inhuman treatment. The phenomenon of widespread undocumented status of migrant workers is attributed to the exploitative and inhumane migrant management system.

In addition, large numbers of undocumented migrants in the country end up in precarious situations of forced labour and lack access to any form of rights in their workplaces and in detention centres, where many are thrown into. This is why the report has taken such a damning view of Malaysia.

The LLRC calls on the government, especially the Ministry of Human Resources and the Ministry of Home Affairs to hold social dialogues with trade unions, labour rights NGOs and migrant worker organizstions to begin a policy discussion to overhaul our migrant worker management system.

N Gopal Kishnam and Irene Xavier are co-chairpersons of the Labour Law Reform Coalition

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