’Forced labour to set back Malaysian development’
Malaysian immigration police guard undocumented Filipino migrant workers being readied for deportation in 2002. Picture: AFP
6:01PM FEBRUARY 11, 2022
The US and Britain have delivered an extraordinary warning to Malaysia that its reputation for mistreatment of migrant workers could hamper its development ambitions, as a furore over slave labour practices in the Southeast Asian nation gathers steam.
The public admonition, in a joint opinion piece by the British high commissioner and US ambassador to Malaysia this week, follows US import bans on at least eight Malaysian firms over allegations of slave labour, including the world’s biggest rubber glove maker, Top Glove.
Canada suspended its contract with another glove maker, Supermax, as it awaits the results of an audit into allegations the company uses forced labour, while British home appliance giant Dyson severed ties with its biggest supplier, Malaysian firm ATA IMS, over labour conditions.
On Thursday, a group of migrant workers from an ATA factory in Malaysia’s Johor Baru province making Dyson components launched legal action in Britain alleging forced labour, physical and psychological injury, false imprisonment and cruel and degrading treatment.
The Malaysian government has responded to the scandal by launching a national action plan to wipe out forced labour by 2030. It has proposed steeper fines and jail time for those convicted of labour abuses. Human Resources Minister M. Saravanan admitted on Thursday the country faced a challenge in policing human trafficking and forced labour but was committed to working with the US and Britain to address the issues.
The two diplomats, Britain’s Charles Hay and America’s Brian McFeeters, in an article in the New Straits Times on Wednesday, described the government plan as a “welcome step in the fight against forced labour in Malaysia” but urged it, the parliament, authorities and businesses to more vigorously identify and prosecute those responsible for modern slavery.
It also called on consumers and buyers to “demand ethical standards for their products”.
“In seriously addressing the issue of forced labour, Malaysia will present itself as an even more competitive option,” they wrote. “Rock-bottom wages and poor treatment of migrant workers also hurts economic development and growth at the macro level.
“The problems that poor treatment of migrant workers create for Malaysia’s image in the global economy makes moving manufacturing up the value chain and creating skilled, well-paying jobs for Malaysians more difficult, hampering broader growth and development aspirations.”
The Weekend Australian has been told the Australian embassy was invited to co-sign the piece but declined because it would not have the time to obtain necessary clearances.
Britain and the US have passed laws strengthening efforts to prohibit the importation of goods produced by forced labour, which Malaysia-based labour rights activist Andy Hall said was missing in Australia.
Mr Hall said Malaysia had at least five million migrant workers, more than half of them undocumented, and the combination of political insecurity and corruption meant the abuses they suffered were some of the worst he had seen. Migrant workers are often charged thousands to secure work, forced to work long hours with no freedom of movement and subjected to squalid living conditions.
“The situation in Malaysia is appalling. It’s similar to the Middle East but much more violent. In Malaysia the main problems are impunity, lack of rule of law and corruption. In Malaysia, forced labour is caused by government policies that don’t allow migrant workers to change jobs or permit ethical recruitment,” Mr Hall said.
“Even if you have laws they’re not enforced. Migrant workers living in the shadows are always at risk either from government officials, employers or agents. If the complete impunity to abuse these third-class citizens doesn’t change, then nothing changes.”
On Friday, electronics manufacturer VS Industry appointed PwC Consulting to conduct an independent review of its labour practices for migrant workers.
AMANDA HODGESOUTH EAST ASIA CORRESPONDENT
Amanda Hodge is The Australian’s South East Asia correspondent, based in Jakarta. Previously based in New Delhi, she has lived and worked in Asia for more than a decade covering social and political upheaval from Afghanistan to East Timor. She has won a Walkley Award, UN Peace Award and has been shortlisted for the Graham Perkin Australian journalist of the year and Lowy Institute Media Awards.