Malaysia’s unseen modern slaves

06-Dec-2021 Intellasia | Freemalaysiatoday | 7:04 AM Print This Post

The golden growth years for the Asean region peaking by the mid-1990s were largely due to the widely available foreign labour. But in the global crisis that has left no country untouched, how are low-skilled migrant workers being treated by their host countries?

We need look no further than our own country, which was downgraded earlier this year from a Tier 2 Watch List designation to Tier 3 in the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, primarily due to forced labour of migrant workers.

As nationals of a country, we enjoy the right to be protected from harm and exploitation, especially during this pandemic. But we are not alone in this country. Other residents and workers, who provide support to the economy as we do, are also deserving of the same protection.

The world has recognised that countries using foreign labour must be cognisant of these individuals’ rights. At the G7 summit in October, the countries’ trade ministers reaffirmed their stand to eradicate all forms of forced labour in global supply chains, and to provide access to protection and remedy for victims of forced labour.

The statement called for strong cooperation by states, multilateral institutions, businesses and civil society towards ending the use of forced labour in global supply chains.

But a commitment is only as strong as the actions that follow.

Consider countries where legislation has been put in place to hold companies accountable for preventing forced labour. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires organisations with an annual turnover of at least GBP 36 million to make a public statement on steps they are taking to identify and prevent modern slavery in their operations and supply chains.

Despite all the previous warnings imposed on certain local companies, including product sanctions and being downgraded as a nation, investors continue to read about an increasing number of companies implicated in failed fair labour practices and labour trafficking.

ESG fund managers are evaluating the abuses and exploitation that seem to be far-reaching, and not industry-specific, ranging from manufacturing companies involving rubber as a sourced product to plantations and consumer products, also those which involve high-tech manufacturing.

The common denominator in these industries is the use of foreign migrant labour: cheap, widespread and completely under-appreciated. There is no point promoting sustainability, or ESG as a practice, if we are blatantly violating the ‘S’ and the ‘G’.

Many NGOs are on top of the working conditions faced by migrant workers, which are akin to modern slavery. There is evidence that there are significant overtime hours, with one media report stating that some workers logged as many as 229 hours of overtime a month, which is more than twice the maximum working hours allowed under Malaysian labour law.

Just doing some numbers if we take an average month to be 30.42 days with 24 hours in a day, that works out to approximately 730 hours in a month; 229 hours out of 730 work out to 31 percent of a month, or close to 9.5 days, spent on overtime.

Is this even possible on top of a normal working day? When do these individuals get to sleep? (And let’s not forget reports and photographs of their abysmal and unhygienic living conditions.)

Other complaints to NGOs include wrongful deduction from the salaries of migrant workers, poor facilities and overcrowding in their hostels, agency fees that were deducted from their salaries, and allowances that were reduced from what was promised to them. We read and hear about this over and over again, with many of these local companies replying to the accusations by just blaming the buying nations (foreign) for highlighting these unacceptable practices.

Recent reports allege that one of the culprit companies has claimed to have spent approximately $16,000 per foreign worker to improve their hostel conditions. However, with closer analysis, this generous number only covers 15 percent of their total workforce. One can only wonder if this headline media announcement includes land cost and other amenities. How much would improving the living standards of these individuals actually work out to, considering the company owes its enormous profitability and sustainability to the migrant workforce? What would have been more helpful would have been transparency about exactly how much space is allocated to each worker in the newly renovated premises, as well as what amenities are available.

The investing community are not idiots, and know there is a great deal of greenwashing, propped up by “award-winning” changes, donations, highly-promoted claims on CSR activities and box-ticking inclusions into indices. Should astute investors stand idly by while people are being treated like modern slaves? The downright poor treatment of individuals, especially during a pandemic which has resulted in a loss of lives, should result in very heavy penalties not only for the company (as it isn’t the company that is at fault), but also to include the directors who have allowed management to make these decisions.

It is simply unacceptable to have companies carry out “short-ism” approaches to their bottom line at the expense of human lives. The financial community should adopt a zero tolerance policy for those that bring shame to our markets. Every life matters.


Category: Malaysia

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