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With the flood of exposés and revelations about pervasive labor rights violations, physical mistreatment and deadly violence against migrants coming to work in Malaysia, the dire exploitation of workers in this Southeast Asian economic powerhouse has been laid bare. Only time will tell if the attention on the treatment of workers is fleeting—a result of the controversy around the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and last week’s long-awaited release of the accord’s text. It certainly raises several questions: Will the Malaysian government and employers finally take migrants’ rights seriously? And beyond that, will Malaysia even treat its own workers with respect and adhere to international labor standards?
The record of the past two decades is not promising.
A recent roundtable in Kuala Lumpur, “Migrants’ Access to Justice,” reviewed an extensive study by the Malaysian Bar Council on the legal rights of migrant workers. It found that migrants still labor without protections, stemming from both weak enforcement of laws and an outdated patchwork of labor laws dating from the 1950s and ’60s. The roundtable was attended by legal practitioners, government officials, NGOs, half a dozen foreign embassies, the Solidarity Center and its long-time allies the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) and Tenaganita, a leading Malaysian advocate for migrants’ rights. The study reveals a familiar litany of problems including debt bondage, rapacious recruiting practices, lack of redress and foreign embassies’ unwillingness to address the cases of their compatriots. The scale of the problem is huge when one considers that up to 40 percent of the overall Malaysian workforce includes migrant workers from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal and Vietnam, among others, and perhaps a third of those are undocumented—which makes them even more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
MTUC representatives at the meeting, however, pointed out that in order to protect migrants, the government also had to protect its own citizens—an area in which it has been grossly negligent. And while a member of the Bar Council speculated that the new labor protection language in the TPP could improve the situation, I suggested that, just as in Vietnam, freedom of association for Malaysian trade unions remains a major hurdle, and there is no sign governments in either country—or employers, for that matter—will proactively enforce any of this.
The current legal environment for Malaysian workers and their unions is incredibly byzantine. Malaysia’s restrictions on freedom of association are among the most extreme in Asia. The government still has not adopted the basic ILO convention (No. 87) guaranteeing freedom of association, despite years of advocacy by labor activists. A conversation with N. Gopal Kishnam, secretary general of the MTUC, and Mohammed Khalid Atan, MTUC president, highlighted the infuriating, baffling and often bizarre legal requirements Malaysian trade unions face to register with the government and, thus, protect their members. For example, for a union to register, workers must vote in a secret ballot and 50 percent plus one is the threshold for recognition—conditions the MTUC readily accepts. But the list of workers eligible to vote is based on the workforce at the company the day the union requested the vote. With employers’ legal wrangling and delays, the vote could actually take place up to three years later. “Because migrant worker turnover is very high, and firing of workers by the company is so easy, a huge portion of the workforce could be gone by the time the vote is taken,” said Gopal. “And any of those workers ‘not voting’—they may have been gone from the company for months or years—are counted as a ‘no’ vote. We say, ‘count the votes based on what’s actually in the ballot box.’”
This arcane legal chicanery permeates Malaysia’s labor relations. “The government is talking about changing labor law in response to the TPP,” said Khalid. “But no one knows what that means.”
The spotlight on the plight of both migrant and Malaysian workers and the advent of the TPP raise the stakes for Malaysia in regard to its behavior under the new trade agreement, its role in ASEAN economic integration and its critical position in the global supply chain of the electronics industry, involving U.S. and Asian multinational corporations.
Ultimately, the path to ending the forced labor, trafficking and other abuses of migrant workers in Malaysia demands the adoption and aggressive enforcement of all ILO core labor standards, such as freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and an end to practices such as debt bondage. It’s extremely important that the world is now focused on the plight of these exploited migrant workers, but it’s equally important to recognize that these abuses exist because of the broader environment of labor injustice for all workers of Malaysia.