PETALING JAYA: Activists have urged the labour department to investigate claims of forced labour in the timber industry.
This follows migrant labour activist Andy Hall’s disclosure at a seminar on Aug 8 that he had received emails complaining of unethical hiring in the RM22.7 billion industry.
Sabah Timber Industries Employees’ Union general secretary Engrit Liaw said labour offices around the country should conduct inspections to verify the claim.
Speaking to FMT, she urged the Malaysian Timber Council (MTC) to be sensitive to the issue and to “take serious note” of the practice of “a forced labour culture” in the country.
“We should not just wait for complaints and then only act,” she added.
In a statement dated Aug 10, MTC said the timber industry had yet to face any social compliance issues but it added that it was committed to addressing “the pressing issue of forced labour” through prevention and better management of migrant workers.
At the Aug 8 seminar, Hall spoke of a need for timber companies to be careful when hiring foreign workers, especially those from Bangladesh. He said it had been shown that they had to fork out large sums to agents to get to Malaysia.
He said the payments should be absorbed by the employers hiring the workers.
He also said employers should end the practice of keeping workers’ passports as this impeded their freedom of movement.
His other calls were for the provision of decent accommodation and a stop to mandatory overtime work and “unnecessary” salary deductions.
Arulkumar Singaraveloo of Malaysia HR Forum told FMT he believed the issue could be addressed if companies were to hire foreign workers directly from source countries without relying on multiple agents and sub-agents.
“Going direct and limiting to a single agent at a source country would give the company better control over the recruitment process,” he said. “Having minimal layers in the recruitment process would help to reduce the overall recruitment cost.”
He said various reports and surveys had indicated that Bangladeshi workers had to pay between RM18,000 and RM25,000 each to agents as a recruitment fee.
He also said companies could avoid trouble if they took an ethical approach in line with the International Labour Organization’s fair recruitment guidelines.
Malaysia has adopted this approach as part of the national action plan on forced labour. The plan’s targets are to be met by 2025.
Arulkumar noted that the plan calls for companies to pay for the cost of recruitment if they choose to engage a Malaysian agent.
MTC CEO Muhtar Suhaili has said the council was committed to safeguarding the rights of workers, whether Malaysians or foreigners, according to the country’s environmental, social, governance and sustainable development goals.
Last year, RM10.4 billion worth of furniture was exported to the US, Japan, Singapore, Britain and Australia, making Malaysia the 10th largest furniture exporter in the world, government data shows.
Demand for Malaysian timber-based products, especially furniture, grew in early 2020 as many people around the world began working from home, leading to a rise in home construction, repairs and re-modelling.
The country recorded RM22.7 billion in timber exports in 2021, a 3.1% rise from 2020.