Section 7. Worker Rights
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Five agencies, including the Department of Labor of the Ministry of Human Resources, have enforcement powers under the law, but their officers performed a variety of functions and did not always actively search for indications of forced labor. NGOs continued to criticize the lack of resources dedicated to enforcement of the law.
The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting forced labor in some cases, and large fines as penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. In July a court overruled an earlier labor department ruling that there was no remedy for undocumented domestic workers to pursue claims of unpaid wages and ordered an Indonesian domestic worker’s case against her employer to receive a full hearing. The Indonesian employee, filing her case under the pseudonym “Nona,” claimed her employer failed to pay her for five years. The executive director of the NGO Tenaganita stated, “with this precedent, there is hope for undocumented workers to seek redress in court.”
In 2018 the government established an Independent Committee on Foreign Workers to provide comprehensive reform plans to the government regarding foreign-worker management and labor policy. The committee presented its final report to cabinet in July with recommendations on streamlining policies related to foreign workers, but the report was not made public.
A variety of sources reported occurrences of forced labor or conditions indicative of forced labor in plantation agriculture, the fishing industry, electronics factories, garment production, construction, restaurants, and domestic service among both adults and children (also see section 7.c.).
Employers, employment agents, and labor recruiters subjected some migrants to forced labor or debt bondage. Many companies hired foreign workers using recruiting or outsourcing companies, creating uncertainty about the legal relationship between the worker, the outsourcing company, and the owner of the workplace, making workers more vulnerable to exploitation and complicating dispute resolution. Labor union representatives noted that recruiting agents in the countries of origin and in Malaysia sometimes imposed high fees, making migrant workers vulnerable to debt bondage.
In August three nonprofit organizations filed a formal complaint with a foreign government urging it to ban imports of products from FGV Holdings Berhad, a Malaysian palm oil company, due to reports of forced labor at FGV plantations. Another petition filed earlier in the year accused FGV of using child labor. An FGV spokesperson told media in August, “We are committed to ensure respect for human rights. We are very serious in handling this.” The trial of former deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi for his role in a fraudulent scheme involving hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers seeking jobs in the country continued as of November. Private companies linked to the then deputy prime minister’s brother and brother-in-law reportedly charged Nepali workers more than RM185 million ($46.3 million) for medical tests and to submit visa applications during the prior five years. These medical and visa processing services increased the cost tenfold without offering additional protections or benefits. Zahid denied involvement in or knowledge of the scam, but the Malaysian Anticorruption Commission charged him in October 2018 with 45 counts of corruption, bribery, and money laundering, three of which concern RM3 million ($750,000) he allegedly received in bribes from a company that ran a visa center for Nepali workers. Critics of the former government had long characterized the foreign-worker recruitment system as corrupt.
Nonpayment of wages remained a concern. Passport confiscation by employers increased migrant workers’ vulnerability to forced labor; the practice was illegal but widespread and generally went unpunished. Migrant workers without access to their passports were more vulnerable to harsh working conditions, lower wages than promised, unexpected wage deductions, and poor housing. NGOs reported that agents or employers in some cases drafted contracts that included a provision for employees to sign over the right to hold their passports to the employer or an agent. Some employers and migrant workers reported that workers sometimes requested employers keep their passports, since replacing lost or stolen passports could cost several months’ wages and leave foreign workers open to questions about their legal status.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.