Quiet approach allows US NGO to improve lives of workers in Malaysian factories

Many workers have their passports held back by employers who fear they will run off.

PETALING JAYA: A New York-based non-profit organisation that investigates labour and environmental abuses has helped Malaysian factories improve their treatment of migrant workers.

These factories are involved in making items ranging from clothes to shoes for famous western companies like Target, Nike and Fruit of the Loom.

The Guardian reported that an 18-month investigation by the NGO, Transparentem, unearthed serious abuses at five apparel factories in Malaysia.

These allegations ranged from retaining workers’ passports for fear they will run away, high recruitment fees and cramped living quarters.

These workers were mainly from Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia.

The UK daily said instead of resorting to “name-and-shame” tactics and publicising what they had found, Transparentem decided to approach the companies quietly to get them to improve working conditions and get more help for these workers.

It said in the past, when it reported such malpractices, these western companies simply switched factories and washed their hands of the matter. This left migrant workers in the lurch.

The Guardian said this new method resulted in some of these western companies giving monetary aid to help the worst-affected workers and forcing the factories to provide a better working environment.

The report said some workers had complained their companies forced them to sleep 28 to a single bedbug-infested room, while sharing one toilet.

Transparentem presented its findings on the Malaysian apparel factories to 23 western companies and 15 of them agreed to help improve matters with five factories in Malaysia.

The western companies got four of the factories to stop using recruiters who demanded illegal fees. They also got them to repay nearly US$1.8 million (RM7.45 million) in recruitment fees to more than 2,500 workers.

“In an important victory for Transparentem, soon after it sent its Malaysian report to companies last October, the American Apparel and Footwear Association – which includes Nike, Gap, Ralph Lauren and 120 other companies – announced a new policy on ‘responsible recruitment’.

“This requires ‘supply chain partners’ to make sure no workers pay recruitment fees and ‘workers retain control of their travel documents and have full freedom of movement’.”

The International Labour Organisation says Malaysia has up to four million migrant workers, representing 20- 30% of the nation’s workforce.

In 2017, Malaysia exported US$3.6 billion in textiles and apparel, with the United States Department of Labour placing Malaysia-made garments on its list of goods produced with forced labour.

The Guardian said Transparentem decided to investigate Malaysia’s apparel industry because previous investigations had already uncovered “forced labour” in its electronics and palm oil industry.

It found the recruitment fees for the Malaysian factories ranged from US$745 to US$4,356.

The foreign workers said they borrowed from banks or relatives, mortgaged land or sold their homes or livestock to pay the fees after being promised lucrative wages in Malaysia.

Transparentem said some workers took years to repay these loans, placing them at risk of “debt bondage”.