If not for the recent US ban on the import of rubber gloves from a local company, Malaysians might not have paid much attention to the phenomenon of forced labour.
Forced or unfree labour goes back to time immemorial.
Earlier, it was forced labour in the form of slavery, indenture, corvee and others where involuntary labour was exercised against the will of workers.
Marxists would refer to these forms of coerced labour as the basis of primitive accumulation, under the pre-capitalist mode of production.
The above cited instances of forced labour might not be present in our midst, but forced labour has been reproduced in different ways over time.
It is basically extraction of involuntary labour under conditions of threat, intimidation, salary cuts and non-payment of wages.
There are too many variations in the manifestation of forced labour.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has to date issued various covenants against the practice of forced labour.
Some countries like the US and those in the European Union have laws and mechanisms against forced labour.
Recently, the US has disallowed the import of rubber gloves from a company in Malaysia.
Rubber glove companies in Malaysia account for nearly 65% of the global production.
Due to the presence of forced labour, billions of dollars are generated in the global economy, the major portion coming from Asia.
The super profits generated from forced labour do little to help the workers in distress as they are caught in the quagmire of doom.
Many countries have outlawed the phenomenon of forced labour in keeping with international labour standards.
Although Malaysia is late in this matter, however, the recent announcement of amending the Employment Act by the human resources ministry might be a silver lining.
But why was the ministry silent on the matter until recently, even though allegations of sweat shops in the rubber glove manufacturing sector had arisen earlier this year?
Forced labour is not confined to the rubber glove industry. There are many other industries and plantation companies using forced labour.
Forced labour is particularly a curse on the docile foreign labour force that has a considerable presence in the country.
It is going to be a major challenge to the Malaysian government to put an end to forced labour when there is a heavy dependence on foreign labour.
The US decision to ban rubber glove imports from a local company should be an eye-opener to the government, employers and unions.
Resolving the problem of forced labour in the country is a joint responsibility of these principal partners.
Even with effective employment laws, the enforcement might be ineffective.
There is a need to synchronise both the laws and enforcement mechanisms.
There was a general complacency on our part that forced labour disappeared with the traditional plantation agriculture and mining.
But it has re-manifested in nefarious ways, not only in the traditional sectors, but in modern manufacturing as well.
P Ramasamy is deputy chief minister II of Penang.
The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.