Securing rights for plantation workers

The Malaysian government has set a target to eliminate any form of forced labour practices in the country by 2030 to ensure the rights of workers are protected.

BUILDING a better life for family was Panji’s main source of motivation to work tirelessly, even if it meant doing hard labour.He noticed that friends and relatives who had migrated to work in Malaysia could afford to build comfortable houses for their families and provide proper education for their children.

Upon turning 18 years-old, Panji who hails from the Kalimantan Barat province of Borneo, Indonesia, left his village to work in Malaysia’s oil palm sector.Based on the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) report titled ‘The Cost of Hope: Stories of Migrant Workers in Palm Oil Plantations in Malaysia’, Panji was reported as one of the more fortunate guest workers to have landed on Malaysian soil.

Under Section 33A(1) Malaysian Employment Act 7 — implemented by the Malaysian Labour Department — Malaysian companies are not permitted to directly recruit low-skilled guest workers from a number of countries including Indonesia, and must engage with a licensed recruiter which arranges all administrative requirements in the countries of origin.Panji was lucky enough to be connected to an ethical sub-agent from his village, who was connected to a recruitment agency.

He then received all the necessary help to secure a job as a harvester in an oil palm plantation after paying a fee, which his family could afford without going into debt.Within three months, Panji signed an employment contract which he could easily read and understand as it was written in Bahasa Indonesia — it is common for guest workers to receive employment contracts written in a foreign language which they do not understand; putting them at risk of being exploited.

The Indonesian native was also briefed about his job requirements and expectations beforehand and was employed by an ethical company, which was kind to workers; allowed access to their personal documents such as passports, and even took them on a trip to the beach to reward them for a good harvest.

Additionally, Panji and fellow workers were not abused or yelled at by managers when they made mistakes. While Panji was lucky to be connected to an ethical sub-agent, many guest workers were not as fortunate and were cheated by unscrupulous people, who claimed to be agents.

This issue was particularly rampant in Bangladesh – prompting the Malaysian government to suspend all worker’s recruitment from Bangladesh in 2018, after allegations of corruption in the process.

The three-and-a-half year ban came to an end when Malaysia signed an agreement with Bangladesh on Dec 19, 2021 to reopen its labour market for Bangladeshi workers.In August of 2023, the Bangladeshi Business Standard — quoting the country’s bureau of manpower, employment and training — reported that Bangladesh recorded its highest number of labour exports in a month ever, with over 138,600 workers leaving the country, 46,105 of whom were headed for Malaysia.

Eradicating modern slavery

Forced labour, which includes a variety of coercive tactics and human rights violations, is defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as “all work or services which are exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself/herself voluntarily.”The ILO has also established that “forced labour refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.”

Currently, there are 11 indicators of forced labor such as the abuse of vulnerability, deception, restriction of movement, isolation, physical and sexual violence, intimidation and threats, retention of identity documents, withholding of wages, debt bondage, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime; as outlined by ILO.

These indicators are progressive and may be expanded in future; depending on new circumstances or cases identified by ILO or by other related authorities. In Malaysia, forced labour is a criminal offence, and it is usually prosecuted under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007 (Act 670) (ATIPSOM Act).

Additionally, there is also the Employment Act 1955 — the main legislation governing the employer-employee relationship in Malaysia.

Recognising concerns and gaps in the employment act, Dewan Rakyat passed the Employment (Amendment) Bill 2021 on March 30, 2021 — where several key amendments were tabled.

The Employment (Amendment) Bill 2021 was passed with the objective to increase and improve the protection and welfare of workers in the country in line with international labour standards as outlined by the ILO.The amended Employment Act 1955, which came into effect on Jan 1, 2023, now offers protection to a much larger category of employees irrespective of wages or occupation in Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the presence of forced labour here remains a pervasive issue which makes it difficult for authorities to provide protection and secure rights for guest workers.

Thus, the government has been taking steps to ensure industry practices and supply chain are free from forced as well as child labour — setting a target to eliminate forced labour practices in all forms by 2030.

The National Action Plan on Forced Labour 2021-2025 (NAPFL) was developed by the government with technical assistance from a wide array of participants most notably from the Government’s social partners, and the civil society organisations.

They include the Human Resource Ministry, Labour Department, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF), Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), ILO - just to name a few.The NAPFL outlines the government of Malaysia’s commitments and vision to eliminate the use of forced labour in any and all forms in Malaysia by 2030.

It is an umbrella for initiatives by the government, workers’ and employers’ organisations - particularly the MEF and MTUC, civil society organisations and international industry associations to achieve elimination of forced labour by 2030 - in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) Target 8.7.

It also serves as a guide for company owners and small and medium enterprises in labour-intensive industries, managers and supervisors of labour workers, as well as human resources and sustainability teams. The NAPFL is a living document which may have adjustments made to it when necessary during the course of implementation to reflect developments.The document also aligns with two other major NAPs in Malaysia including the National Action Plan on Anti-Trafficking in Persons 2021-2025 (NAPTIP 3.0) to eradicate human trafficking in the country and the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (NAPBHR).

Simultaneously, the government recognised the need for a top-bottom approach to address forced labour issues across industries.

For the oil palm sector, the government mandated its players to be certified by the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Standards.

In the revised MSPO 2.0. adopted last year , plantation companies must comply with Principle 4: Responsibility to social, health, safety, and employment conditions, which outlines an employer’s responsibility to:

a) Employment conditions comply with legal requirements and the ILO Decent Work Agenda;

b) No forms of forced or trafficked labour as well as child labour are used;

c) Any form of discrimination and harassment is prohibited; and

d) Triangular employment arrangements are practised in line with (a).Any violation of the standard will result in revoking of the licence to operate the oil palm plantation or worse, operation suspension.

The MSPO standard is a national certification standard created by the Malaysian government and developed with input from stakeholders in the palm oil industry.

First launched in November 2013, it officially came into implementation on a voluntary basis in January 2015.

Throughout the years, the certification scheme has evolved and improved.

In 2017, the government announced that the MSPO would be made mandatory by 2019 and also, financial assistance will be given to smallholders to achieve the MSPO certification.

The standards were recently updated to address the social aspects linked to the palm oil industry as mentioned above.

Malaysia has also deposited the instrument of ratification to the ILO Protocol No. 29 on March 21, 2022, a Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention as part of the government’s measures in addressing the issue.

“The Malaysian government and regulatory bodies are confronting these deep-seated issues via various actions to realise the aspiration of eliminating forced labour by 2030.

This goal aligns with national development objectives of reduced reliance on low-skilled low-wage migrant labour.

“This goes hand in hand with better labour standards as well as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) — particularly Goal 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all,” says MPOC.

The council believes that with Malaysia’s government and oil palm industry’s convergence of policy focus and commitment, there is a high possibility for Malaysia to be a trendsetter in making significant progress towards its goal of eliminating forced labour within a decade.

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