After Signing ILO Protocol, Malaysia Will be Obligated to End Forced Labor

Hadi Azmi
2021.12.01
Kuala Lumpur
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After Signing ILO Protocol, Malaysia Will be Obligated to End Forced Labor A worker loads bunches of palm oil fruit at a plantation in Slim River, Malaysia, Aug. 12, 2021.
Reuters

Updated at 8:10 a.m. ET on 2021-12-2

Malaysia will be legally obligated to prevent all forms of forced labor and sanction violators once it signs a supplementary requirement to the Forced Labor Convention that the country agreed to ratify, a United Nations official said this week.

The Southeast Asian nation’s businesses – especially rubber manufacturers and palm plantations – have been targeted by accusations that they use forced labor, with the United States barring products from five companies for allegedly coercing their workers, officials and analysts said.

Introduced in 2014, the supplementary protocol to the 1930 convention stipulates that signatory member-states must develop a national policy and plan of action to suppress forced or compulsory labor, according to Jodelen Mitra of the International Labor Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency.

“By ratifying, Malaysia accepts it as a legally binding instrument, makes a formal commitment to implement the obligations in that instrument, and accepts the ILO supervisory system, in which ILO social partners, including trade unions, may intervene,” Mitra told BenarNews.

On Nov. 26, Human Resources Minister M. Saravanan announced that Malaysia was ready to ratify the protocol as he launched a five-year National Action Plan on Forced Labor (NAPFL). The plan calls for providing victims of forced labor with improved access to remedy, support and protective services, he said.

Saravanan’s announcement follows allegations that Malaysian manufacturers have been involved in forced labor practices. The allegations led to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency hitting several companies with import sanctions.

US sanctions

Earlier this month, rubber-glove manufacturer Smart Glove became the fifth Malaysian company in the past 15 months to be slapped with such a ban.

Glove maker Supermax saw its exports to the United States banned in October while Top Glove saw the July 2020 ban against exports lifted a month earlier after U.S. officials determined that the company had improved labor and living conditions for its workers.

Last year, the U.S. also banned two palm oil companies, Sime Darby and FGV Holdings Berhad, from exporting their products.

Malaysian company ATA IMS was the latest to be hit by allegations of forced labor when American appliance manufacturer Dyson last week terminated its contracts with the company following an audit of its labor practices and allegations from a whistleblower.

Saravanan told MPs that the labor department had opened an investigation into the company after receiving complaints, according to the Reuters news service. He did not list details of the investigation or the complaint, and the company did not respond to the news service’s request for comment.

In his statement on Wednesday, Saravanan said the allegations were affecting foreign investment in the country.

“Overall, the forced labor issues linked to local companies in electronic manufacturing, rubber glove sectors and palm plantations is giving the country a bad image and influence the foreign investors’ confidence toward Malaysia’s supply of products,” he said.

In June, the U.S. State Department downgraded Malaysia from the Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 3 in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, described Malaysia as “a perennial offender.”

Mitra, meanwhile, said the ILO had been working with the Malaysian government on forced labor concerns since 2017 through their project “From Protocol to Practice: A Bridge to Global Action on Forced Labor.”

“Malaysia has already ratified the Forced Labor Convention of 1930 and the protocol is supplementary so it makes sense for them to ratify it,” she said.

Skepticism

Labor and migrant rights activist Adrian Pereira said he did not expect to see changes to Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers.

“I have given up on following their promises or ratifying this and that. They have launched NAPTIP and NAPFL … so many NAPs but basic labor cases have yet to be resolved,” Pereira told BenarNews.

The Ministry of Home Affairs launched the National Action Plan on Anti-Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) in July, before the Ministry of Human Resources launched the NAPFL.

Officials have said the plans aim to eradicate forced labor and human trafficking in five years.

Despite that commitment, Pereira expressed skepticism.

“Forced labor is a very complex issue and from the basic to advanced cases we submitted to the Human Resources Ministry over the years, they have not been resolved,” Pereira said.

He added that Malaysia has not given formal rights to work for refugees and asylum seekers.

“This means thousands of them are working in forced labor conditions because of our poor national policies,” he said.

Echoing Pereira, Tashny Sukumaran, a domestic politics and labor migration analyst at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said the government could reform policies to eradicate the conditions.

“While it is important to ratify treaties that safeguard not just migrants but all workers, the fact is there is a lot more we can do on the ground,” Tashny told BenarNews.

This includes thorough inspections at factories and proper penalties to employers who abuse their domestic workers. Tashny said the government should enforce the passport act to prevent employers from the practice of withholding workers’ passports.

“It would also be valuable if the government could ensure that the migrant workers have access to grievance mechanism and procedures so they can then decide what they want to do, for example whether they want to be repatriated,” she said.

In dropping Malaysia to the lowest rank, Tier 3, the TIP report noted that migrant workers are often exploited by employers, employment agents and illegal sub-agents by being imposed additional fees after their arrival, leading to forced labor through debt-based coercion.

She said Malaysia’s lackadaisical attitude toward protecting workers rights goes beyond the question of morality and is severely affecting the nation’s economy.

“Without foreign workers, Malaysia’s post-COVID economic recovery will be stunted, forcing us to again play catch up with our neighbors who are not mired by this problem,” Tashny said.

In October, the Ministry of Finance said the coronavirus pandemic highlighted a sharp decline in the country’s gross domestic product because of the country’s dependence on foreign labor.

“Malaysians are generally reluctant to take up the 3D (dirty, dangerous, difficult) jobs, resulting in the monopolization by foreign workers of specific sectors,” the ministry said at the time.

“Many foreign workers work in labor-intensive sectors such as the manufacturing, construction, plantation, agriculture and domestic helper sectors.”

Correction: This version changes information about ILO working with the government on forced labor concerns based on ILO's revised date.

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