New labour policies not enough to fight Malaysia’s forced labour problem

A new lawsuit against global healthcare giants Kimberly-Clark and Ansell by ex-employees of a gloves manufacturer shine light on systemic labour issues further down the supply chain.

Migrant workers in Malaysai
Despite Malaysia being relatively economically advanced, its migration, labour and employment policies continue to mirror that of developing countries, according to migrant worker rights activist Andy Hall. Image: Freemalaysiatoday

Last Wednesday, the Malaysian government announced that it would enforce shorter working hours in a move to align the country’s labour laws with the International Labour Organisation’s standards, reducing the enforced weekly working hours from 48 to 45. 

The same day, 13 former workers of Malaysian glove manufacturer Brightway Group filed a lawsuit in a United States Federal Court against Kimberly-Clark Corporation and Ansell, accusing the healthcare giants of benefitting from what they knew was forced labour. The Bangladeshi workers said that they had been forced to work 12-hour shifts daily with few or no rest days. 

The dichotomy reflects the Southeast Asian country’s struggle to improve labour practices in the face of multiple bans against its manufacturers’ exports from developed countries based on alleged forced labour practices and human rights violations.  

“It’s definitely good that there’s increasing attention on the area. People are working harder and moving to develop systems and checklists (to combat forced labour) but it’s really about how it’s being applied on the ground,” independent labour rights activist Andy Hall told Eco-Business.

Hall was first contacted by the former Brightway workers, whom he introduced to International Rights Advocates, a Washington DC-based legal organisation dedicated to addressing human rights abuses by multinational corporations.

In a statement on 10 August, International Rights Advocates said that its executive director, Terrence Collingsworth, had sought mediation between the companies and former workers, which both companies declined. 

“The workers now seek damages for the corporations’ role in violations of their basic human rights. To the extent they have not yet received it, they demand full reimbursement of the significant recruitment fees they were compelled to pay the third-party agencies in Bangladesh that have direct ties to Brightway,” the statement said, adding that the 13 plaintiffs represent a class of thousands of other workers who have also been subjected to the same systemic trafficking. 

All these kinds of handbooks and theories are not going to get us very far. There’s a lot of work still to be done.

Andy Hall, independent labour rights activist

Among the abuses the former workers told the International Rights Advocates they faced at Brightway were high recruitment fees paid to third-party agencies in Bangladesh, having had their passports seized, physical and verbal abuse by supervisors, and cramped living conditions. 

Kimberly-Clark, in an email response to Reuters, said that the lawsuit was “completely without merit”.

Is Malaysia moving fast enough? 

Over the past two years, eight Malaysian planation and glove manufacturing companies have been subject to bans on exports to the United States by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) over alleged abuses of migrant workers. Brightway Group was among those, having had a withhold release order issued against their glove products in December 2021 that remains active today. 

On 8 August, the Malaysian Rubber Council released a new guide titled Addressing, Preventing and Eliminating Forced Labour in the Rubber Industry in Malaysia, developed in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation and designed to assist employers in identifying forced labour risks in sourcing, recruiting, and employing workers.

At its launch, Malaysia’s Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin called on the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association to develop an industry-wide certification, similar to the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification, to prove that the industry is “very serious” about combating forced labour allegations. 

Also on 8 August, the Malaysian Timber Council held a seminar focused on enhancing social compliance practices surrounding the employment of migrant workers in the timber industry. Speaking at the seminar, the council’s chief executive officer Muthar Suhaili said that forced labour issues in the industry have become “dire to a point that it is affecting our businesses.”

But while industry leaders and the bigger exporting companies in particular have improved their labour practices, these improved standards have not been seen among smaller players in the manufacturing sector, Hall said. Brightway is “not just a bad apple”, but indicative of widespread systemic issues including government corruption and syndicated forced labour that plague Malaysia’s lower wage labour force. 

“If you look at the smaller actors, there are still major problems. They’re still not recruiting ethically,” he said, adding that there is still a high risk of systemic forced labour in companies further down the supply chain that may not subjected to audits by large multinational buyers.

Improved labour practices by larger manufacturers should trickle down to the smaller companies, but it will take time, Hall said.

“All these kinds of handbooks and theories are not going to get us very far. There’s a lot of work still to be done,” he said.

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