In Malaysia, foreign workers supply more than 20 percent of the workforce. The US State Department notes there are approximately 2 million documented migrant workers in Malaysia and estimates even more undocumented workers exist. Malaysia is the top destination for Indonesian migrant workers. The Indonesian government estimates 1 million Indonesians who are working in Malaysia are either undocumented or have overstayed their visas. Other source countries are Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Burma and the Philippines. Low economic opportunities in their home countries, the geographic proximity of Malaysia, and Malaysia’s arrival into an upper middle-class country fuel both the demand and supply of the foreign labor market in Malaysia.
The economic desperation of migrant workers and the Malaysian legal system both serve to create an environment that is ripe for exploitation. Migrant workers are expected to sign off on employment contracts even if they are not written in the worker’s native language. It is also common for workers to be illiterate, so they are unaware of what they are signing. In these instances, a thumbprint is used in lieu of an actual signature. Many don’t realize that by signing this document, they have most likely agreed to surrender their passport to their employer. Even though this practice is legal, confiscation of passports is an effective means of controlling movement and a classic technique used in human trafficking. There are also reported instances of “contract substitution”: workers are provided with a job description while in their home country that ends up being very different from the job they get. By signing the employment contract, these workers have most likely agreed not to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining even though restricting the formation of labor unions is illegal. Although employers are required to pay the national minimum wage, work on palm plantations is typically paid by the weight of fruit that gets collected or the amount of fertilizer that gets distributed. Employers set aggressive daily targets and if they are not met, workers are penalized through pay deductions. If necessary, workers are expected to work overtime without pay to meet daily quotas. Often family members (including children) are brought in by the palm worker to assist in meeting daily quotas. These family members are not paid by the plantation nor do they receive training, or personal protection equipment such as face masks. The US Department of Labor lists palm oil coming from Malaysia as potentially being produced with forced and child labor. If unripe fruit is collected, there are more pay deductions. Transportation fees and employment fees are also deducted from their pay. If workers want to go home early, there have been documented instances of threats of termination.
If a documented foreign worker is fired, they are not allowed to work for another employer and must leave the country, or become an undocumented worker. Many have gone into debt to afford the opportunity to work in Malaysia so returning home is typically not an option. If they attempt to resolve their employment situation through the Malaysian legal system, it can take up to 6 months for their case to be heard in court. Malaysian law only allows foreign workers to remain in the country without employment for 3 months. They also are restricted from working during this time. With mouths to feed and debts to repay, employment justice is typically too expensive for these workers.
Foreign workers are forbidden from bringing family with them or having romantic relations while in the country. Even so, children are born to migrant workers. Unless they are born to a Malaysian mother, these children are stateless, unable to attend school or utilize the free healthcare available to Malaysian citizens. They are unable to legally travel or marry and live in fear of being picked up in immigration raids. This creates a population of incredibly vulnerable people that have even fewer choices than their impoverished parents and are more apt to become victims of trafficking.
Amnesty International. The Great Palm Oil Scandal: Labour Abuses Behind Big Brand Names-Executive Summary. 2016.
Gianmmarinaro, M., 2015, Report of the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, A/HRC/29/38/Add.1, OHCHR, Geneva, Switzerland
US State Department, TIP 2017 Report, Indonesia, pp. 208-211
US State Department, TIP 2017 Report, Malaysia, pp. 264-267
Varatiala, S., Ristimaki, S. The Law of the Jungle: Corporate Responsibility of Finnish Palm Oil Purchases. 2014.