The existence of modern slavery is a shocking truth and the world is rightly waking up to it. Public opinion is starting to put pressure on the global supply chains and consumer brands to prove they are not contaminated by this disgraceful practice.
Malaysia faces a reputation disaster unless it wakes up too. The country’s huge migrant workforce is an asset that has driven the economy over recent years, enabling a low population country to become a key manufacturer within the global supply chains of numerous industries.
However, this had made that workforce into a commodity to be exploited, like so many other resources in a historically corrupted country, by ruthless decision makers and executive authorities.
Transported through airports and hidden around factories, so many of these labourers remain segregated from the domestic population and are often treated with suspicion and fear or simply ignored.
Owing to their alien status, exacerbated by that public suspicion and lack of interest, such migrants are bound by restrictions imposed by the Malaysian authorities which have removed the normal freedoms and protections available to free citizens of the country.
This in turn has left them vulnerable to be abused by those wishing to exploit them. Most arrive heavily indebted to the traffickers who paid their engagement fees, legally committed only to work for one employer and deprived of their passports.
Migrant rights campaigner, Andy Hall – best known for exposing the forced labour scandal in the latex glove industry – has worked tirelessly across South East Asia to highlight the desperate need for reform and better management to protect these workers from what he rightly describes as modern slavery.
Appalling conditions and forced labour are the norm and in this practice foreign buyers are in league with authorities who turn a blind eye in Malaysia. Too often the public remain unaware or unconcerned, whilst corrupt public officials have historically made a fortune from this exploitation.
It has to stop. Hall says only Malaysia’s prime minister has the power to halt the disgrace, but first he needs to take control.
The campaigner says that he understands the economic imperatives that prompted the new PH coalition government to issue a million new worker permits to boost the economy (what better indicator of the value to Malaysia of its guest workers?).
However, as the recent spate of corruption investigations into the process is making clear, there is a need for a complete overhaul of strategy and the process needs to be managed from the very top, owing to the many departments across government that have to be coordinated to ensure the proper care and management of a full third of Malaysia’s workforce.
Until this is achieved there can only be further suffering and scandals as Malaysia’s status as one of the top nations dependent on the abuse of forced labour (the other word is slavery) becomes ever more notorious.
Below is an edited version of the SR interview with Any Hall.
Malaysia is central stage for so many concerns about migrant labour can you explain why Malaysia seems to be a hub in this problem?
There’re a huge number of migrant workers in Malaysia, you know, estimated like four or five million. Officially, it’s less than two million but there’re a lot of irregular workers so that’s a large proportion of the working population; it’s a huge amount, I mean obviously it’s not like the Middle East where sometimes it’s 75 eighty 85% of the population, but you know 5,000,000 is a large number. 15 million people are employed in Malaysia so you’re talking almost a third of the labour force and it’s been very much focused on labour intensive export industries. Obviously the [Malaysian] population has become more skilled, like in many countries, and older and they don’t want to do these kind of jobs that are required, you know, dirty dangerous demeaning 3D jobs in the economy, so it’s become on a huge issue – you’re talking about almost 20% of the [overall] population being from overseas.
Why is it such a problem?
It’s like many countries, when this foreign worker issue is mixed with systemic corruption it just becomes really nasty and abusive and exploitative – definitely the situation in Malaysia – not just in migrant issues but across the board with governance issues. If you look at compared to, for instance, Thailand the recruitment fees for workers coming into Malaysia are sometimes 4,5,6,7,8 times more than what it would be for a worker from a similar country coming into Thailand and it’s much higher than the Middle East. So it’s really, really high fees and I think that stems from this systemic corruption in the migrant worker management system and also this real lack of any migration policy from the government
You used two words I had planned to raise with you ‘governance’ and ‘corruption’ which go right to the top in Malaysia. Do you think the reason why this problem is so excessive is that it has come from the top?
Yeah, I mean migration management should be a cross governance issue you know, it should be managed from the Prime Minister down. Many countries have their own migration units but in Malaysia it is essentially completely controlled by the ministry of Home Affairs and the national security agencies who often cite national security as a means to exploit workers. And, yeah it’s corruption all the way from the top from what I understand. That’s come up a lot in the corruption trials that relate to migrant workers.
So, what hope do you have when you see small time officials trying to abuse these very vulnerable people?
I focused for a long time on migration and human rights issues but I found it wasn’t really getting me anywhere so I started to link the abuses with the global supply chain and I found that I had a lot more impact because it starts to hit the pocket. We’ve seen in Malaysia some big companies have pulled out like Dyson and we’ve seen people being very cautious at affects on the direct investment into the country and effects the pockets of the people in power and I think then they start to show some interest – I mean it’s not as if human rights is never going to win over in these kind of situations, people are just not interested in these human rights issues, but when it’s linked to business and the global supply chain and foreign direct investment people start to listen.
One of the things that I found a bit more difficult about Malaysia, as opposed to say Thailand. is that there’s a less concern with face. You know in Thailand it’s there’s a real concern with face and reputation and it wants to be seen as a beautiful, friendly, calm, non-violent society, whereas in Malaysia there’s not really that kind of concern. The face issue is still important but it’s really comes down to the profit issue and and if we start to hit the bottom line in the pockets of these industries then I think we can start to have some impact in getting them to improve the conditions as much as they need to to ensure that their money is still coming in.
It’s really sad to hear you say that there seems very little point in trying to appeal on the human rights grounds because if you meet individual Malaysians you know they’re not cruel people but I fully understand what you’re saying. Do you agree that that to a large degree it comes down again to leadership failings in that people are not being encouraged to consider those abuses and are not being informed on the extent of what is going on?
Malaysian people are very nice people who follow the religion and the morality of things. Like other people, this is an issue of leadership because the abuse of migrant workers essentially comes from the leadership and particularly national security agencies – immigration for example – who are abusing their power and citing national security and protection as a means to exploit people. So, I don’t think it’s the common people. The companies are also involved but sometimes the smaller employers have also really struggled with the system, like the corruption that they have to pay to get workers.
There’s a real misconception that this issue stems from Bangladesh or Nepal or India or Myanma, you know, but it’s just completely wrong. All of these issues of abuse of migrant workers and corruption they start and end with Putrajaya they start and end in Malaysia. The source countries, yes they not angels and they’re not innocent, but most of the money that’s taken from workers in the source country ends up in Putrajaya, it doesn’t end up in the source countries. They have to hand over all this cash, often through hundi systems and illegal banking systems, they have to hand this money they collect from workers in the source countries to the people in Malaysia to agents to officials.
The whole system, they make it so complex, so in order to get all your papers you have to keep paying. It’s just ridiculous, for instance, they have two health checks one on departure one on arrival and often workers arrive and then get deported because they failed the health check. Even if the health check was certified by the same company in the source country they can fail when they come to Malaysia. Then you have all these different special approval processes to get quarters. Actually, you’re supposed to have a certain percentage of Malaysians but you have to pay corruption money to get over that.
It is all designed to milk them essentially?
Yeah, you have health, you have security you have all these processes, they are not effective, they are not efficient and there is so much lack of transparency and so much corruption involved in that. Usually in most countries it’s not as lucrative as drugs smuggling in weapons smuggling and stuff like that but in Malaysia I mean as huge amounts of money that are being made you know.
So basically this is people trafficking money?
Yeah, yeah it’s like modern slavery it’s human trafficking and obviously you know we’ve seen all this on the border of Malaysia and Thailand with the Rohingya, and obviously that’s some of the worst, but the situation that many of these workers are in is really appalling so it is akin to human trafficking or modern slavery.
You mentioned national security issues.
Migration issues in many countries are framed as a threat to the country. Actually, in Malaysia it’s not really that much of an issue because they don’t have land borders with the countries that the workers are coming from, apart from Thailand of course. You have to fly in so it is less of an issue, but it’s framed like this threat then these national security agencies basically trump up the threat and then people think that they are at risk but migration is also about economic and human security and its very important for [Malaysia’s] economy. When migrants are coming in it has an impact on communities also so it’s not just about the security of the country but it’s also about economic security and human security but that’s really never focused on you know.
We are talking about modern slavery here aren’t we, given that by the time a migrant worker has entered Malaysia they have no power left over their lives do they?
Most of the abuses that workers suffer in Malaysia, lower skilled workers, stems from their unethical abusive illegal recruitment and they end up in massive amounts of debt from the beginning and their passports are confiscated and they’re isolated. According to Malaysian government rules you can’t change employer, even if you’re a trafficking victim, unless the government allows it for some reason, so the whole system is geared up from the recruitment stage, putting workers in massive amounts of debt, so yes they’re essentially slavery victims whether that be forced labour or human trafficking a massive proportion of them are facing these situations.
Give me some of the cases you are currently having to work on.
Obviously the gloves situation which I highlighted during the pandemic, although I’ve been campaigning since 2018 and things have improved a bit in that industry, although there is still a long way to go. But with medical equipment it’s not just gloves, it’s also the electrical equipment that’s used in hospitals and one of the things I’m trying to focus on increasingly now is furniture in the timber industry, not just timber but furniture, because that really is appalling and so much of the world’s furniture comes from Malaysia, whether it be for hospitals, Starbucks, Cosco or whatever.
My focus first will be looking at the export factories because you know it is horrific the conditions that workers are working under in furniture factories that are exporting to the global market and you have the direct links between factories and the global supply chain, also issues relating to children and really abusive modern slavery – the debt is really terrible, the unethical recruitment, not having their passports, working really long hours and really, really terrible accommodation. The accommodation in the furniture sector is probably the worst that I’ve seen, and then also a lot of injuries. Mostly around Malacca and Johor – people are just housed in anything. Actually, you were supposed to have certificates of housing in order to get migrant worker quotas but they scrapped it after the Anwar government came in because they said we need to workers so much, but they are being housed in you know literally situations like old shipping containers – really, really poor conditions next to the place where they are working with a lot of pollution from the workplace. So you have situations with a lot of occupational health, safety issues both from the machines – because they obviously cutting and there has a lot of injuries from the machines – but also occupational injuries from the dust and things like that which is obviously very difficult to prove.
I’ve done a bit of work on the palm oil I mean there’s a lot of work going on there and obviously I’ve been looking at the EMS industries, like related to Dyson. The automobile industry is another big one because you have both plastic and glass and you have the electronics and you have the furniture, the textiles of the car: you have it all going on in Malaysia – the garment industry, even weapons. A lot of the components of weapons and also the aircraft aviation industry come from Malaysia, you know, it’s huge it’s huge for many many different reasons.
We’ve talked about the failings of government and the scrapping of legislation, despite supposedly this being a reforming government, what about the attitude of employers do you think it’s it’s basically a question of employers racing to the bottom unless they are properly regulated as an almost inevitable process?
The governance structure makes it difficult for employers to do things properly, that’s fair enough they do have some excuses because of this systemic corruption involved. But at the same time there are employers that manage to do it better so I always don’t think that’s an absolute excuse – it’s about getting round corrupt governments and protecting workers.
There seems to be a a kind of callousness there?
There’re some pretty really terrible employers, like gangsters you know, essentially they are gangsters and they are really close to officials and they use violence and intimidation and harassment – there are definitely a lot of those kind of employers but there are employers that try to be better but they find it difficult because of the governance system.
If you’re trying to do better things and the guy next door is a gangster who manages to do the same product for 3/4 of the price, unless the government steps in you’re at a massive disadvantage aren’t you, even if you did want to be a better employer?
It’s not just because of that. A lot of these international companies and brands in the international community they also talk about human rights and social responsibility but essentially most of the time it’s a buyers’ market so they can squeeze the suppliers. So, although they’re making all these commitments related to human rights and stuff, on the ground we see employers really being squeezed by the brands and the global buyers. So, it would put you in a disadvantage because you have a higher selling price and then the buyers don’t take these things into account. I mean it’s very rare to get buyers to engage about moving to a 60 hour working week or improving accommodation or paying for recruitment fees. Big employers would go back to the buyers and big brands and say look you know we want to move to a 60 hour working week but we’re going to need more workers and we’re going to have to pay the workers more for doing less work.
The average European expects to have a 37 hour working week!
Most migrant workers they work a 48 hour week, but usually many of them work up to 100 or more hours overtime. Essentially they are working way over 60 hours a week. The thing is, a living wage is premised on a 48 hour week so it’s quite difficult to apply that in Malaysia unless the global community or the brands or the buyers are willing to pay for it and they’re clearly not you know.
Is there a structure that you would like to see whereby global buyers have to have some kind of global oversight so that brands are forced to bring in independent inspectors to certify themselves?
I mean for the forced labour issue it just shouldn’t be happening and there is so much more that should be done to prevent the forced labour that’s going on. I mean it’s really only in the garment industry, because it has been the focus of so many campaigns and so much pressure for like decades, that we’re seeing these kind of debates going on .
So, do campaigns work, does building awareness among the Malaysian people work?
I think a lot of this is to do with the global supply chain – the buyers and the brands and the international community and the consumers. I don’t believe that consumers are responsible I think the brands are responsible, but I think it’s more of an international issue. Of course, the culture also needs to change in Malaysia to give greater support and understanding of migrant workers.
I focus on really two things at the moment, one is getting media attention and the other one is investors, because investors have massive leverage and they’re the ones that are making the profit and so we really need to educate the investors so that they start to take these issues into account. Investors really they have no idea about forced labour issues I found that over and over again.
Obviously we’ve had a change of government which on the one hand appears more attuned to these issues but on the other hand has relaxed the rules to push a recruitment drive. What are your concerns?
I wrote an Op Ed [opinion piece] back when Anwar was making all these statements in January because it was clearly going to be a disaster, as he was talking about all these things but he wasn’t talking about corruption. It was clear that if you’re going to reform the migrant worker systems in Malaysia you have to address the corruption because it’s just so systemic. and so all the policies that he was bringing, you know, to bring in workers quickly and to reduce the bureaucracy, it was clearly going to be a disaster because people were going to take advantage of it, which they have and that’s what we’re seeing now – basically a million quota was issued in the last couple of months without literally any checks and balances.
Originally in order to get a quota [to bring in workers] you had to go through so many different hurdles, which again some of them were bureaucratic but some of them were useful like for instance an employer had to prove that they had accommodation that was fit for workers before they could get in, they had to check they didn’t have any violations or anything like that. but in the end they were just issuing quotas.
I believe that they issued maybe hundreds of thousands of quotas to bogus employers – employers that don’t even exist. So, some official works with some company that’s registered as a licenced company in Malaysia that doesn’t have any factory, doesn’t have any need for workers and then they suddenly get a quota of thousands of workers and they start trafficking people. So that’s really became a huge issue for me since Anwar came in.
Is this problem really new?
It’s always been an issue but it just massively increased. After Anwar came, within three days you could get a quota, they scrapped all the requirements and then suddenly after two months the HR ministry came out and said we are suspending it because there was already a million quotas issued. And then they were doing this scheme to legalise workers also and it was an awful mess.
For me there’s there’s no long term sustainable migration policy in Malaysia that takes into account national economic and human security, that’s the first thing, there’s no underlying policy. Secondly, I agree migration policy needs to be under the Prime Minister because he needs to manage all of these different ministries: it’s about national security, human security, economic security. It is about health, it’s about education, it’s about human resources, it’s about Home Affairs – and that needs to be managed by the Prime Minister, even if one of the ministries is the secretariat it has to be under the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister and then you have to weed out corruption. So the problem in Malaysia is they don’t have a policy on migration and then you have this systemic corruption so when you mix them both together it just becomes an absolute mess.
Is your impression that Anwar came into office and was trying to repair a major economic problem and did a short term action that was perhaps culpable?
From what I’ve heard fixing the economy was really the priority but I have heard that the Malaysian anti corruption Commission during the last week has started all these investigations and there’s a lot of stuff going on and I’ve heard the Malaysian anti corruption Commission saying the government is supportive of this and they say it is easy to do their job because they are not facing any political resistance.
You mean that the PM is supporting the MACC in investigating abuses?
As in not standing in the way, as in the past government people would basically stand in the way or they would get phone calls saying, you know, “why you investigating this issue?” or whatever.
But, I also think that it’s a bit late because we’re almost five months into the year and, as I said in February when his policy first came out, you need to address corruption first otherwise it’s going to be a disaster. I think it has to start from having a long term migration policy as I said, then you need to have a corruption root out to address these issues.
Do you feel a bit of a voice in the wilderness speaking to Malaysia?
I do find it very difficult to work in Malaysia, partly because I can’t go to Malaysia – it’s just too risky for me. The High Commission told me not to come and then my lawyer also told me that he’s pretty sure that there’s police cases against me because I have this defamation case against me [related to denouncing employers] and he’s pretty sure that police reports have been lodged.
But I can still work remotely. Most of the money that I get I get from some consultancy then I pay for all these people to do this research for me through my own funds and I find that we can do everything very effectively remotely because workers don’t want to meet us anyway, they just want to speak remotely when they get a chance. For me the biggest problem with Malaysian civil society, which is doing a lot of work, is their lack of understanding of business/ human rights concepts and how to link the abuse with the global community.
They are very happy to speak with FMT or to speak with Malaysiakini on a domestic level but they don’t really connect properly with the international community, particularly the business and investment community. It’s great crying out on human rights, but I don’t think it has the impact that we need you know. I think that they’re not very savvy on linking these abuses with the international community particularly the business and investment community.
Most of these issues are linked to the global supply chain to people in the UK and Europe, in Australia and America and investors and banks and brands, but often people just lose sight of that and they just see these abuses in Malaysia and they think it’s just about Malaysia but, actually, it’s a global issue. So, if we don’t link it with a global community it’s hard to be effective I think.
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