[Virtual forum] Tackling forced labour in Malaysia : A civil society response to government policies

Approximately 230 participants including academics, members of parliament, ambassador, trade unionists and NGO activists joined the virtual public forum on forced labour organized by Labour Law Reform Coalition (LLRC) on 5 January 2022 at 8:30pm via Zoom and Facebook Live.

Panel speakers :

  • Tuan Hj. Mohd Asri bin Abdul Wahab, Deputy Director General (Operational) from the Department of Labour Peninsular Malaysia
  • Irene Xavier, LLRC co-chairperson, the founder of Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor
  • Andy Hall, British human rights defender and migrant worker rights specialist, advisor to Electronics watch
  • YB Charles Santiago, member of parliament for Klang, he is also the chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

You can still watch the recording on facebook live : https://fb.watch/aqk6_MAEs6/

Please download the presentation of LLRC co-chairperson Sister Irene Xavier here :

In addition, below is the response of Brother N. Gopal Kishnam, LLRC Co-Chairperson and General Secretary of NUTEAIW in the forum :

In my opinion, there are three aspects of trade unions’ involvement in forced labour issues – (1) Lack of freedom of association constrained by the labour law; (2) Lack of capacity and awareness of forced labour; (3) Lack of an integrated approach that involves trade unions.

From the colonial period until now, we have had very restrictive labour laws that inhibit worker organizing and the government has failed to intervene when employers resort to union busting. That’s the reason only 6 percent of Malaysian workers organized into unions. Throughout the world, it is true that wherever trade unions are strong, trade unions will protect the rights of both local and migrant workers. It is because trade unions are an important institution that can be a voice of workers through tripartite consultation.

Since the establishment of LLRC in 2018, we have been calling on the government to speed up the amendments of Trade Union Act and Industrial Relations Act, so that trade unions can organize workers beyond the particular trade, industry and occupation that cripples trade unions’ ability to organize. Until today only Industrial Relations Act amendments were passed, but many provisions are still unenforceable because it is interlocking with the Trade Union Act. Our labour laws are not consistent with the key principle of the ILO Convention on Freedom of Association that every worker has the right to join unions of their own choice, it is unbelievable after we achieve independence for 65 years.

Therefore, it is important that the current government table, pass and enforce the Trade Union Act amendments as soon as possible to create an enabling environment where trade unions can freely organize workers, including migrant workers, to protect their rights and interests. Migrant workers also should be allowed to be elected as trade union officials so they have a strong voice in trade unions.

Secondly, I admit that many union leaders and worksite committee members do not have sufficient knowledge on forced labour, therefore trade unions should provide training relating to forced labour for worksite committee members so they can provide support to migrant workers whenever there is a problem. But frankly, the situation is not so severe if unions existed in a workplace, in our industry we tried to organize migrant workers, but many of them were not interested, and our collective agreements cover all workers including migrant workers. They will look for our union when they have a problem.

Thirdly, the government does not actively trade unions in the fight against forced labour, so far the effort remains at the top policy stage but does not reach to industry or particular geographical areas.

I would suggest the Ministry of Human Resources, Department of Labour, to involve national unions in the industry in implementing the National Action Plan on Forced Labour. For example, if the government is planning to recruit migrant workers to work in the electronics or oil palm industry, please involve the electronics unions in the regions and national plantation unions in preparing the pre-departure and on-arrival training for migrant workers.

During the on-arrival training, please let the union give a briefing to the workers that they have the right to join unions, the unions can give them a brochure where they can find support from unions. By doing this, we integrated trade unions in the support system for migrant workers and gave a role for unions to fight forced labour. As we know, the Department of Labour does not have enough labour inspectors to present on the ground frequently. If we can integrate trade unions in the implementation of the action plan, trade unions can be an army on the ground every day to fight forced labour.

Trade unions in LLRC are committed to cooperate with all stakeholders, the department of labour, members of parliament, Brother Andy Hall in eliminating forced labour in Malaysia. We unionists must take bigger responsibility to improve the well-being of workers in Malaysia, regardless of local or migrant workers. Because an injury to a worker is an injury to all workers.”