Envoy: Forced labour still an issue

Unknown quantity: Hermono believes that reported cases are ‘just the tip of the iceberg’.

PETALING JAYA: While complaints of the abuse of migrant workers in the plantation and electronic industries have dropped in the past two years, reports of forced labour remain high for those in the domestic sector, says Indonesian Ambassador to Malaysia Hermono.

He attributed the general improvement on the treatment of migrant workers in plantation companies and electronic industries to these two sectors having adopted ethical and fair recruitment practices.

“I welcome Malaysia’s commitment to eradicating forced labour and trafficking in persons through a number of policies and legislative amendments.

“Reports of abuse (in the two sectors) have also decreased significantly. However, reports of forced labour remain high for those who are working in the domestic sector.

“What surprised me is that those who abuse the workers are people with important social and economic status,” he told The Star.

There were 254 cases with elements of forced labour handled by the embassy from January to July 2023, with the most common abuse being the withholding of wages, said Hermono.

“For example, now we are handling unpaid wages of between 10 and 19 years.

“Of those cases, we have been able to settle 132 cases out of court and recovered unpaid wages of more than RM1.8mil,” he said.

Other common types of abuse handled by the embassy are restriction of movement, retention of identity documents and excessive workload, he said.

These are among the 11 indicators of forced labour as published in the Guidelines to Prevent and Combat Forced Labour Practices at the Workplace launched by Human Resources Minister V. Sivakumar on Sept 14.

Hermono believes that reported cases were “just the tip of the iceberg”.

“Those who don’t have access to communication and are facing restriction of movement cannot report and seek refuge in the embassy.

“Based on my estimates, the cases we handle make up no more than 20% of the real situation,” he said.

Hermono said Malaysia must strengthen the law enforcement against abusive employers, including VIPs (very important persons).

“This is important to send a message to all employers that nobody is above the law,” he said.

He also said it is important to introduce fast-track settlement of cases of forced labour and trafficking as well as provide restitution to victims.

“Another obstacle we face is the settlement of forced labour cases in courts.

“When the forced labour involves undocumented workers, many employers refuse to settle as they think they are untouchable,” he said.

Moreover, there were instances when the Labour Department declined to settle cases involving undocumented workers, he claimed.

In this situation, many victims of forced labour and trafficking had to return home without any compensation while the employers walked free, said Hermono.

Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) president Datuk Dr Syed Hussain Syed Husman said despite the various efforts by the government, MEF, trade unions and relevant stakeholders, incidents of forced labour keep cropping up.

He said this is due to a lack of awareness on what constitutes forced labour along with relevant laws and regulations.

He added that it could also be a deliberate act by errant employers, misguidance by recruitment agents, and limitations in enforcement as the number of available labour inspectors is insufficient.

While the Guidelines to Prevent and Combat Forced Labour Practices at the Workplace enable stakeholders to work closer to combat and eliminate forced labour, said Syed Hussain, there is a need to be clear on what amounts to non-compliance of the identified 11 indicators on forced labour.

“As an example, in the event a foreign worker voluntarily requests the employer to keep his or her passport for safekeeping and the foreign worker has access to the passport on a 24/7, 365-day basis, should the employer be faulted for trying to honestly keep the passport for safety reasons?

“In most cases, it is not safe for the foreign worker to personally keep the passport as in the event the passport is lost or damaged, it is very costly to get it replaced.

“It is very important for the authorities to be practical in identifying instances in which retaining the passport of foreign worker amounts to forced labour,” he said.

Syed Hussain also said Malaysia is still on the right track to eliminate forced labour with the launch of the National Action Plan on Forced Labour (NAPFL) 2021-2025 in November 2021, which focuses on awareness, enforcement, labour migration as well as access to remedy and support services with the aim of eliminating forced labour practices in Malaysia by 2030.

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Forced Labour , Employers , Guideline


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