The statement by Malaysian police that fewer than 10 cases of forced labour discovered so far this year, compared to 62 cases last year, does not reveal the whole story of Malaysian forced labour, which has its roots and legitimacy in the current employment law.
This comes in wake of US sanctions being applied against several companies in the country over allegations of modern-day slavery.
According to Azry Akmar, an assistant commissioner of police, most cases happened because of the lack of knowledge by the company owners (on issues of forced labour) and the companies neglecting to produce better working conditions for their workers.
The issues found included abuse of vulnerability, workers’ restriction of movement, retention of identity documents and withholding of wages, he said.
These issues are not something that has been happening for the past two years. It has been practised over the years. For example, employers’ retention of the identity documents of their foreign workers has been a practice all the while.
These cases have only taken a serious turn in the past two years due to sanctions imposed by the US and Canada that force the Malaysian authorities to investigate such widespread abuses.
The root cause of the current crisis can be traced to the time of the Barisan Nasional government, when it destroyed the direct employment relationship between the principal, as employer, and their workers, as employees, with the amendments to the Employment Act 1955, which came into effect in April 2012. These amendments were bulldozed through in Parliament in spite of vehement opposition by Malaysian trade unions and civil society.
With the amendment, the contractor for labour will be the third party (or the middleman) who will come in between the now direct employment relationship between the owner-operator of a trade or business (defined as the principal) and their workers-employees.
These amendments have resulted in the widespread practice among the principal organisations to recruit foreign workers through agents without having direct responsibility for their wellbeing and rights.
We have basically violated the most fundamental International Labour Organization conventions on force labour.
According to the ILO Forced Labour Convention 1930 (No 29), forced or compulsory labour is all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.
Therefore, the Association for Community and Dialogue urges the Perikatan Nasional government to review and amend the clause on contract for labour to ensure the principal organisation takes back ownership of workers under its premises and takes responsibility for ensuring their foreign workers are not from the international and national chain of forced labour. – The Malaysian Insight