Malaysian law allowing excessive overtime equals forced labor

“Law allowing excessive overtime equals forced labor,” say Malaysian rights groups

  • Published on
    September 26, 2023
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  • Category:
    Forced Labor, Law & Policy
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A group of 20 Malaysian organizations and trade unions are calling on the government to amend the employment regulations law due to excessive overtime becoming a normalized business practice. Currently, the legal limit for overtime hours is 104 hours a month, which qualifies it as forced labor under the definition of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention.  

When the exception becomes the rule, working becomes forced labor 

The ILO Convention states that workers should not work more than eight hours per day or more than 48 hours a week as standard practice. The Convention does allow for exceptions to this standard on a temporary basis, giving a 56-hour weekly maximum limit for increased hours. But according to the groups calling for change, in Malaysia, the exception has become the rule.  

The group’s statement reported by The Star says:  

“In Malaysia, overtime is not limited to exceptional situations but sometimes becomes the norm. Even though Malaysia has reduced weekly working hours from 48 to 45 beginning January 2023, it is useless if the legal overtime limit remains 104 hours a month,”

The current system allows workers to legally work for up to 71 hours a week. That’s 26 hours OVER the weekly limit for the temporary exception provided by the ILO Convention. Excessive overtime is among the ILO’s 11 indicators of forced labor, which also include abuse of vulnerability; deception; restriction of movement; isolation; physical and sexual violence; intimidation and threats; retention of identity documents; withholding of wages; abusive working and living conditions; and debt bondage. 

Increase justice for workers, hold company decision-makers accountable 

The groups are also calling on the government to ensure that decision-makers, like company directors and managers, are charged, tried, and convicted as part of any legal action for violation of current laws. Human Resources Minister V. Sivakumar said that 272 employers had been issued compounds (payment as a settlement in lieu of prosecution of an offense), and 128 employers were fined by the court since January this year. But compounds and fines only hurt the company, not the people behind the abuse, and they don’t help victims at all. 

The government needs to do more to ensure violators are held individually responsible to act as a deterrent and that victims of labor abuse receive fair compensation.  

“Fines and compound payments go to the government, not to the affected worker victims of forced labor. Most victimized workers are poor and lack capacity, and simply choose not to pursue justice, hence allowing perpetrators of forced labor to get away with it,”

Labor laws could add a provision to ensure compensation is awarded directly to victims as part of the same court proceeding for the labor violation itself. This would remove the need for victims to go after the convicted perpetrators on their own to find justice. 

When it comes to better labor laws, Malaysia is not the exception 

Inadequate protections and pathways to justice for victims are not isolated to Malaysia or even the global South. Deteriorating working conditions and forced labor can be found in every country, underlining the need for ALL countries to prioritize the effort to end forced labor.  

Freedom United has long advocated for local and global legislation to end forced labor wherever it is found. Stand with Freedom United, sign our petition, and add your voice to voices from all over the world calling on governments to adopt this international law and help end forced labor in your country and everywhere.  

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