Being Human: Time to end migrant workers’ misery

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 26, 2021 - August 01, 2021.
Being Human: Time to end migrant workers’ misery
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Many of us may be aware that the world of migrants is filled with challenges that rival the high drama of the movies. But while the celluloid stories that hold our attention are born of creative minds, the tragic situation of abused migrants is painfully real.

That reality has all the ingredients of a surreal nightmare: syndicates that trick vulnerable folk seeking to escape poverty, workers trapped in conditions they never bargained for, corruption at multiple levels of the manpower ecosystem, debt burdens that put migrants at the mercy of flinty lenders, rogue employers who turn out workers after withholding their wages, and much, much more.

In the restrained language of official documents, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) sums up the abuses in a 2018 report: “They are exposed to high recruitment fees, wage arrears and contract substitution, long working hours without additional remuneration, denial of rest days and leave, housed in unsanitary accommodation, and have their personal identification documents taken from them, exposing them to harassment and arrest by authorities.”

Make no mistake, this refers to Malaysia. It is just one in a series of reports that have appeared in recent years describing forced labour as a prevalent problem among migrant workers in the country.

Even years later, there is no real change. Although some remedial measures have been taken, the welfare of migrant workers in Malaysia remains precarious. Now, the country is starting to pay a heavy price for this negligence.

The tipping point was reached this month, when the US State Department released its latest Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

As well reported in the media, Malaysia has been downgraded to Tier 3, the lowest category in the report, which means that it does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.

Some data will put this into perspective. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there were 212,000 victims of modern slavery in Malaysia in 2018, out of a population of 30.7 million in the survey period. This put it in 14th place out of 28 Asia-Pacific countries in terms of its prevalence.

In Malaysia, the overwhelming majority of human trafficking victims are migrant workers, according to the TIP report.

The report confirms a fact of life for some two million documented migrants and a greater number of undocumented ones who are drawn to Malaysia’s shores by the economic opportunities generated by our industries — in the manufacturing, extractive, agricultural, construction and service sectors.

Foreign workers constitute more than 30% of the Malaysian workforce and typically migrate voluntarily — often through irregular channels — from Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, the report says.

Tragically, many migrant workers land in a debt trap to finance their journey to Malaysia and find a job. To pay for the exorbitant costs of job recruitment, many of them have no choice but to become indentured, a recent report by The Centre policy institute notes.

Bangladeshi migrants pay the equivalent of RM20,000 to recruitment agents for the promise of work. Nepalis are charged between RM5,000 and RM6,000, and Indonesians, RM2,000 to RM3,000, the report says. In reality, however, Indonesian domestic workers pay RM6,000 to RM10,000, The Centre’s research shows.

As a result, indentured Bangladeshis would have to work for several years to pay off the debt, taking into account living costs, interest on the loan and possible salary deductions, says the institute.

None of this is new. In 2014, Verité, a workers’ advocacy group, published a US government-funded report on forced labour in Malaysia’s electronics industry.

The report, which reads like an indictment of the trade, states that on a conservative basis, 32% of foreign workers surveyed were in situations of forced labour.

In that year’s TIP report, Malaysia was downgraded to Tier 3, after being given waivers for two consecutive years on the basis of a written plan to become compliant with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

The following year, Malaysia was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List, a decision that human rights advocates strongly criticised, citing a lack of improvement in the trafficking situation.

Now, the wheels have turned, as a Credit Suisse equity report on July 7 makes clear.

Referring to the US Customs’ seizure in May of rubber gloves from Malaysia that it believed was made using forced labour, the research house said: “We had emphasised the implications of the US Customs and Border Protection Agency incorporating forced labour considerations in determining trade access to the largest market in the world. Canada has since confirmed market access provisions, and the EU and the UK are considering the same. We believe this fundamentally alters the risk profile of the forced labour thematic for a broad range of sectors.”

Following the US’ action, rubber glove maker Top Glove has seen its sales volume to the US falling from 23% in 2QFY2021 to only 8% in the most recent 3QFY2021, the report said.

While the largest risk of sales disruption was in medical gloves, it said, producers in the technology, palm oil and apparel sectors were also under pressure.

Amid increased awareness of forced labour, noted Credit Suisse, glove maker Hartalega Holdings repaid RM41 million in recruitment fees that had been collected from workers while Kossan Rubber Industries committed to pay RM25 million by June, on top of RM29 million it had repaid to its migrant workers.

Another material development is taking place in the UK. This month, the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre released a report entitled “Forced labour in the Malaysian medical gloves supply chain during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

This is important, Credit Suisse said, because the UK’s National Health Service is the single biggest buyer of medical gloves in the world and Malaysia supplies most of the gloves used by the NHS.

A key finding of the UK report is that: “Using the ILO’s indicators of forced labour as a framework, our research found evidence of all forced labour indicators before and during the Covid-19 pandemic, with evidence that four of the 11 indicators worsened during the pandemic.”

The four indicators related to restrictions on movement, isolation, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime, the report said.

Noting that the evidence shows that current efforts to curb forced labour have limited effect, the report recommended as a priority that governments use their purchasing power to meaningfully address labour and working conditions.

Enough has been said on the issue by all quarters. The world’s attention is now focused on measuring business performance on environmental, social and governance criteria.

Ironically, the public health crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic that produced an unprecedented boom for rubber glove makers has also turned a spotlight on the misery of the workers who slave away in our backyard to meet that demand.

The long-overdue time to clean up our act has come.

Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is an associate editor at The Edge

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