Field report: Malaysia: End debt bondage for migrant workers

Photo: Our local partner, Tenaganita, delivering the campaign petition to Malaysia’s Ministry of Human Resources.

Goal:

To prevent the Malaysian Ministry of Human Resources from following through on a proposal made by Minister M. Kulasegaran to allow employers to deduct 20% from of foreign workers’ salaries in order to prevent them from fleeing their workplaces.

The Minister framed this as a “win-win situation” for employers and workers, where migrant workers would be able to collect the deducted amount when they leave the country after their work permits had expired. However, as the purpose of this policy was to prevent migrant workers from fleeing their workplaces, the focus should have been on the root cause of why workers leave their employment. A significant number of those who flee do so due to exploitative working conditions, which include the withholding of wages, abuse and being overworked.

With an estimated two million migrant workers in Malaysia – largely from Bangladesh, Nepal, and Indonesia — the proposal to deduct 20% from foreign workers’ salaries was especially dangerous given that many workers were already in debt bondage, unable to pay off exploitative recruitment fees, and overtly aimed to restrict their freedom of movement.

Summary:

Minister M. Kulasegaran proposed the 20% salary deduction on migrant workers in 2018, submitting the proposal to the National Labor Advisory Council in December 2018 to gather stakeholder input. Freedom United and our local NGO partner in Malaysia, Tenaganita, quickly mobilized in response, launching our campaign calling for the proposal to be cancelled over the risk of debt bondage posed to migrant workers. Minister Kulasegaran had previously declared a “war against forced labor and human trafficking” in Malaysia, making his proposal clearly contradictory to his promises to protect workers from exploitation.

On March 12, 2019, Tenaganita wrote to the Ministry of Human Resources for clarification on the status of the proposal but did not receive a response. At the end of May 2019, we heard from the Ministry that they were “in the midst of gathering inputs from relevant stakeholders through series of engagement pertaining to this proposal.” However, these consultations did not include civil society organizations working with affected communities.

As a follow-up, on June 13, 2019 Tenaganita met with representatives from the Ministry of Human Resources to deliver our joint petition with 18,194 signatures from the Freedom United community, urging the Ministry to the cancel the 20% deduction proposal.

International scrutiny on Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers escalated in August 2019, with the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights releasing a statement raising serious concerns regarding the rights of migrant workers in Malaysia, arguing that “The number and consistency of reports documenting abuses against migrant workers should be considered a scandal.”

Outcome:

Following the delivery our petition to the Ministry of Human Resources, there have been no public updates on the 20% deduction proposal advancing. Furthermore, due to changes in Malaysia’s government, Minister Kulasegaran was replaced by Minister Datuk Seri M. Saravanan on March 10, 2020. Since he has taken office, there has been no news on the proposal being taken up by the new minister, and Tenaganita’s requests for clarification on the status of the proposal have not been answered.

Based on these developments, we believe that our campaign and petition delivery to the Ministry of Human Resources were successful at keeping this proposal at bay, demonstrating that international and local NGO pressure on the Ministry to cancel the proposal were effective.


Our partner in this campaign:

Tenaganita

Tenaganita is a Malaysian human rights organisation dedicated in assisting, building, advocating and protecting migrants, refugees, women and children from exploitation, abuse, discrimination, slavery and human trafficking.


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Dariusz
Dariusz
10 months ago

That’s natural for humans they are full of greed. Migrant workers were scrutinized for decades everywhere. Robbing them of opportunity for earning decent living reflects the grim situation of present world.