Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy. It has a parliamentary system of government selected through regular, multiparty elections and is headed by a prime minister. The king is the head of state, serves a largely ceremonial role, and has a five-year term. Sultan Muhammad V resigned as king on January 6 after serving two years; Sultan Abdullah succeeded him that month. The kingship rotates among the sultans of the nine states with hereditary rulers. In 2018 parliamentary elections, the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition defeated the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, resulting in the first transfer of power between coalitions since independence in 1957. Before and during the campaign, then opposition politicians and civil society organizations alleged electoral irregularities and systemic disadvantages for opposition groups due to lack of media access and malapportioned districts favoring the then ruling coalition.
The Royal Malaysian Police maintain internal security and report to the Ministry of Home Affairs. State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers have authority to enforce some criminal aspects of sharia. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents; reports of torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; reports of problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, censorship, site blocking, and abuse of criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on and intolerance of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; refoulement of refugees to a country where they would face a threat to their life or freedom; acts of corruption; trafficking in persons; violence against transgender persons; criminalization of consensual adult same-sex sexual activities; and child labor.
The government arrested and prosecuted some officials engaged in corruption, malfeasance, and human rights abuses, although civil-society groups alleged continued impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution allows restrictions on the freedom of expression “in the interest of the security of the Federation…[or] public order.” The government regularly restricted freedom of expression for members of the public, media, and civil society, citing reasons such as upholding Islam and the special status of ethnic Malays, protecting national security, maintaining public order, and preserving friendly relations with other countries.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits sedition and public comment on issues defined as sensitive, including racial and religious matters or criticism of the king or ruling sultans.
In July a sessions court upheld the sedition conviction of Wan Ji, an Islamic preacher and former political aide, for insulting the sultan of Selangor State in 2012, and sentenced him to three months in jail in addition to the nine-month sentence a lower court imposed. Upon his release from custody pending appeal, Wan Ji said a police warden punched him three times while he was detained; he speculated that the attack was politically motivated but said he could not be sure. Following the session court’s decision, Amnesty International Malaysia stated, “The restrictions on the right to freedom of expression imposed in the Sedition Act are phrased in an excessively broad and vague manner, potentially resulting in both an overreach of the law and potential for abusive application of the law. The law should have been abolished by now, as per Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto.”
In August police banned Islamic preacher Zakir Naik from speaking in public and posting on social media after he made comments insulting ethnic Chinese and Indian minority groups. Zakir Naik was banned from preaching in several other countries under antihate laws. The Inspector General of Police said the ban “is only temporary,” adding that “if the situation doesn’t change, the order will remain.” Police said they “ordered” law enforcement officers to “advise” organizers of any events involving Naik to cancel his participation. Police justified their action citing a law authorizing them to maintain “law and order” and preserve “peace and security.” Some lawyers argued police did not have the authority to ban someone from speaking in public under such a provision. Referring to the section of law cited by police, one lawyer told media, “That section is just to identify the role of the police force. It does not give explicit power to do anything specific.”
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Political parties and individuals linked to the former Barisan Nasional ruling coalition owned or controlled a majority of shares in almost all English and Malay language print and broadcast media, many of which were overtly pro-opposition. Online media outlets were more independent but were often the target of legal action and harassment.
Despite many restrictions and official pressure, opposition parties, social action groups, unions, internet news sites, and other private groups actively covered opposition activity and frequently printed views critical of government policies. Online media and blogs provided views and reported stories not featured in the mainstream press.
The government maintained and at times exerted control over news content, both in print and broadcast media. The government banned, restricted, or limited circulation of publications believed a threat to public order, morality, or national security. The government has the power to suspend publication for these reasons and retained effective control over the licensing process.
In October parliament repealed the law against “fake news,” which criminalized the “malicious” production or dissemination of “any news, information, data or reports, which is or are wholly or partly false.” Parliamentarians voted to repeal the law in August 2018, but the opposition-controlled Senate overturned the decision, postponing the law’s repeal.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to harassment and intimidation. In September police summoned Dennis Ignatius, a columnist and former Malaysian diplomat, as they investigated his August 16 column in Free Malaysia Today criticizing Zakir Naik, a controversial Islamic preacher. Referring to India’s attempt to extradite Naik, an Indian national, and Naik’s police report against him for defamation, Ignatius told reporters, “I think it’s so ironic that in this era of Malaysia Baru (New), I am now being summoned to the police to give a statement because of a report filed by a fugitive.” In August police detained a foreign journalist who had been taking photographs of a blockade set up by indigenous-rights activists in Perak state. The journalist was released after the intervention of the state’s chief minister.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government maintained the ability to censor media but did not use this power as frequently as did its predecessor. The law requires a permit to own a printing press, and printers often were reluctant to print publications critical of the government due to fear of reprisal. Such policies, together with antidefamation laws, inhibited independent or investigative journalism and resulted in self-censorship in the print and broadcast media.
According to the NGO Reporters Without Borders, “The general environment for journalists is much more relaxed, self-censorship has declined dramatically, and the print media are now offering a fuller and more balanced range of viewpoints, including support for the new ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and support for the old ruling coalition, now in the opposition.” Reporters Without Borders said the lack of progress amending or annulling controversial legislation that limited freedom of expression continued to “pose a constant threat to media personnel, who still cannot express themselves with complete freedom, despite all the progress.”
The government occasionally censored foreign magazines, newspapers, and news programming, most often due to sexual content.
Government restrictions on radio and television stations mirrored those on print media, and the electronic media predominantly supported the government. Television stations censored programming to follow government guidelines.
The government generally restricted publications it judged might incite racial or religious disharmony. The Ministry of Home Affairs maintained a list of 1,715 banned publications as of November. In April the high court upheld a previous ban on three books by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) because the books “are likely to be prejudicial to public order and interest and likely to alarm public opinion.” IRF’s director, Farouk Musa, said, “It seems to me the minister of home affairs has the absolute discretion in banning books that do not conform” to the version of Islam preferred by Islamic authorities. The same month, the high court lifted the previous government’s ban on the book, Breaking Silence: Voices of Moderation—Islam in a Constitutional Democracy, by the NGO G25.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law includes sections on civil and criminal defamation. Criminal defamation is punishable by a maximum two years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. True statements can be considered defamatory if they contravene the “public good.” The government and its supporters used these laws, along with provisions against sedition, to punish and suppress publication of material critical of government officials and policies.
National Security: Authorities under the former government occasionally cited national security laws to restrict media distribution of material critical of government policies and public officials. The current government maintained the ability to impose these restrictions.
Nongovernmental Impact: NGOs sympathetic to the former government sought to limit freedom of expression through criminal complaints of allegedly seditious speech. Such NGOs also sometimes attempted to intimidate opposition groups through demonstrations.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association but allows restrictions deemed necessary or expedient in the interest of security, public order, or (in the case of association) morality. Abiding by the government’s restrictions did not protect some protesters from harassment or arrest.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation, but these rights were often restricted by federal and state government officials, particularly in eastern Sabah and Sarawak States.
In-country Movement: Sabah and Sarawak States controlled immigration into their areas and required citizens from peninsular Malaysia and foreigners to present passports or national identity cards for entry. State authorities continued to deny entry to certain national leaders to these states. Sarawak maintained its ban on Zakir Naik, a controversial Islamic preacher; Mandeep Karpal Singh, formerly of the fair-election NGO coalition Bersih; current Bersih chair Thomas Fann; former chairs Maria Chin and Ambiga Sreenevasan; Wong Chin Huat, an academic and Bersih resource chair; Jerald Joseph, a SUHAKAM commissioner; and activists Colin Nicholas and Jannie Lasimbang, among others. The Sabah state government lifted its ban on political activists.
Foreign Travel: Travel to Israel is subject to approval and limited to religious purposes.
In May the Immigration Department lifted travel restrictions on former attorney general Apandi Ali after Apandi challenged them, arguing that he had not been charged with any criminal offense and did not face any pending legal actions. In 2016, while attorney general with the previous government, Apandi cleared Prime Minister Najib Razak of any wrongdoing in a corruption scandal.
f. Protection of Refugees
As of August, 177,690 refugees and asylum seekers were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, of whom more than 153,000 were from Burma.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government generally did not impede organizations providing protection and assistance to migrants, refugees, and stateless persons, most of whom lived intermingled with the general public. The government cooperated to a limited extent with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. As there is no legal framework for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers in the country, UNHCR conducted all activities related to protection, including registration and status determination. Most migrants, refugees, and stateless persons lived in private accommodations and survived on support from UNHCR, NGOs, or illegal casual labor. The government held thousands in immigration detention centers and other facilities. Access to those in detention centers was often significantly limited.
NGOs and international organizations involved with these populations made credible allegations of overcrowding, inadequate food and clothing, lack of regular access to clean water, poor medical care, improper sanitation, and lack of bedding in the immigration detention centers. In July the Philippine civil society organization Migrante International accused Malaysian immigration officials of keeping detained migrants in inhumane conditions, with inadequate food and water and subject to verbal abuse. The group claimed one detainee showing signs of psychosis was tied to the wall and forced to stand for long periods. NGOs provided most medical care and treatment in the detention centers.
Local and international NGOs estimated the population at most of the country’s 17 immigration detention centers was at or beyond capacity, with some detainees held for a year or longer. The number detained in these centers was not publicly available.
Human rights organizations expressed serious concerns about the lack of access to fair legal process and adequate representation during immigration court hearings. The Malaysian Bar Council strongly criticized the immigration courts in detention centers as facilitating a legal process where migrant workers were not provided with a clear understanding of the charges against them in their own language and were effectively denied the right to legal counsel. At court hearings, 15 to 20 migrants were often tried together, grouped by the offense with which they were charged. If found guilty, the cost of deportation generally fell to the detainee, which led to prolonged detention for those unable to pay.
Refoulement: The government at times forcibly returned refugees to countries where their lives or freedom were at risk. In May Malaysian authorities forcibly returned Praphan Pipithnamporn, a Thai national registered as an asylum seeker with UNHCR and considered a “person of concern,” to Thailand at the request of Thai authorities. According to media, the Thai government issued a warrant for her arrest in January, “accusing her of sedition and organized crime for her involvement with the Organization for Thai Federation, a peaceful antimonarchy group.” In a statement, Human Rights Watch said, “Malaysia’s flouting of international law has placed a Thai activist at grave risk of arbitrary detention and an unjust prosecution in Thailand.”
The wife of Abdallah Mahmoud Hisham, deported to Egypt in March, said her husband had gone missing after returning to Egypt. Human Rights Watch stated that Abdallah Mahmoud Hisham, along with Abdelrahman Abdelaziz Ahmed, Mohamed Fathy Eid, and Azmy al-Sayed Mohamed, who were deported at the same time for their alleged membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, were at “serious risk of torture and ill-treatment in Egypt.”
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
Migrants, refugees, and stateless persons receive no government support. The government allows UNHCR and NGOs to work with these populations, but government cooperation with UNHCR was inconsistent.
As “illegal immigrants,” refugees and others are subject to deportation at any time. They also face a maximum five years’ imprisonment, a fine of RM10,000 ($2,400), or both, and mandatory caning with a maximum six strokes if convicted of immigration-law violations.
Freedom of Movement: The government generally tolerated the presence of undocumented refugees and asylum seekers but sometimes detained them for a variety of causes in police jails or immigration detention centers until they could be deported or UNHCR established their bona fides. Some refugees holding UNHCR identification cards nonetheless reported limited ability to move throughout the country because authorities sometimes did not recognize the UNHCR card.
Employment: Although the government does not authorize UNHCR-registered refugees to work, it typically did not interfere if they performed informal work. UNHCR reported the government brought charges, in a few cases, against employers for hiring them. Refugees employed in the informal sector were paid lower wages than comparable employees and were vulnerable to exploitation.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided access to health care at a discounted foreigner’s rate of 50 percent to UNHCR-registered refugees, but not to persons without UNHCR registration cards. NGOs operated static and mobile clinics, but their number and access were limited. Refugees did not have access to the public education system. Access to education was limited to schools run by NGOs and ethnic communities, and UNHCR estimated no more than 40 percent of refugee children attended school. A lack of resources and qualified teachers limited opportunities for the majority of school-age refugee children. UNHCR staff members conducted numerous visits to prisons and immigration detention centers to provide counseling, support, and legal representation for refugees and asylum seekers.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary, renewable residence permits to a group of Syrian refugees. The permit allows for legal residency and conveys work rights, but must be renewed annually.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In 2018 the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition unseated the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in general elections, marking the first federal transition of power between coalitions since independence in 1957. Prior to the elections, then opposition political parties were disadvantaged due to government control over traditional media outlets and malapportionment of constituencies, among other issues.
While authorities generally recorded votes accurately, there were irregularities perpetrated by the former government that affected the fairness of elections. A special election court ruled on August 16 that there were serious breaches in the Kimanis parliamentary district in Sabah State during the May 2018 general election, including “manipulation” of ballot boxes and more than 300 “improperly cast” ballots. Former foreign minister Anifah Aman, who has held the Kimanis seat since 1999, won in 2018 by 156 votes; he appealed the court’s decision.
The constitution fixes the number of seats in parliament assigned to each state to the advantage of rural states and regardless of population shifts over time. Moreover, it does not require equal populations in electoral constituencies in any given state. Each constituency elects one member of parliament. The Electoral Commission has established constituencies with widely varying populations, further to the advantage of rural populations. For example, the rural district of Igan had 18,000 registered voters, while the urban district of Kapar had more than 144,000 registered voters. Local and municipal officials are appointed at the state or federal level.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials; prior to the 2018 change of government, however, enforcement generally focused on relatively small-scale, low-level crime. After the change, the government charged several former government officials with corruption, including the former prime minister, although there remained a broadly held perception of widespread corruption and cronyism in government institutions. Media outlets reported numerous cases of alleged official corruption.
The Malaysian Anticorruption Commission is responsible for investigating corruption in both private and public bodies but does not have prosecutorial authority. An auditor general is responsible, per the constitution, for auditing the accounts of the federal and state governments, government agencies, and other public authorities.
Responding to questions in parliament on March 28, a deputy minister confirmed that the report on governance and the economy drafted by the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP), an advisory body established by Prime Minister Mahathir, would remain classified because it contained confidential information. Civil society criticized the decision, as did some members of parliament. According to the Center for Independent Journalism, “any document can be classified secret once it has been certified as such by a public officer” and “the courts have no jurisdiction to review whether or not the document should be considered secret.”
Corruption: Corruption was a key campaign issue in the 2018 general elections.
Suits filed in 2018 against former prime minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, remained ongoing. Najib was charged with criminal breach of trust, abuse of power as a public officer, and money laundering; Rosmah was charged with 19 counts of money laundering and tax evasion.
According to the federal government, authorities arrested 418 civil servants for bribery in 2018; as of April, 140 had been charged. In January Prime Minister Mahathir said reports of alleged corruption were increasing because individuals no longer feared filing complaints with the Malaysian Anticorruption Commission, adding that most of the reports were linked to the previous government.
The federal government launched a national anticorruption plan in January. The plan is composed of 115 initiatives, including sweeping changes to how government officials are appointed and to the procurement process; requirements that legislators publicly declare their assets; and new laws regulating political financing and lobbying.
Financial Disclosure: Cabinet members must declare their assets to the prime minister. Senior civil servants are required to declare their assets to the chief secretary of the government. Junior civil servants must declare their assets to the head of their department. The assets, liabilities, and interests public officials must declare are clearly defined and do not include the assets and incomes of spouses and dependent children, except in the case of members of parliament. Public officials must declare their assets annually, but not upon entering or leaving office. Those who refuse or fail to declare their assets face disciplinary actions and are ineligible for promotion. The government did not make public these declarations.
In a unanimous voice vote, lawmakers passed a regulation on July 1 compelling all members of parliament, their immediate family members, and trustees to declare their assets by October 1. Those who did not abide by the requirement could be held in contempt of parliamentary regulations, while those found to have provided false information could be subject to criminal proceedings. Prime Minister Mahathir said the initiative would deter members of parliament from abusing their positions. Although opposition members did not vote against it, the deputy president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party claimed the measure is unnecessary and against Islam, arguing, “If God gives us wealth, you do not reveal it to the public, because it will create attention and envy.” Former prime minister Najib Razak said the decision was “unfair” because many parliamentarians derive income from sources in addition to their government salary.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Domestic and international human rights groups operated subject to varying levels of government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases; however, the government was not always cooperative or responsive to their views. In October Michelle Bachelet became the first UN high commissioner for human rights to visit Malaysia, at the invitation of the Malaysian government.
In April police summoned Numan Afifi, an LGBTI activist and president of the NGO PELANGI Campaign, to question him about statements he made during Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations in Geneva in March. Numan said the police action was “designed to intimidate and harass human rights defenders.”
Outside the political and human rights fields, the government generally allowed NGOs to function independently, met with representatives from some NGOs, and responded to some NGO requests. The government, however, also took action against some NGOs. In an August 27 ruling, the high court dismissed the argument by the NGO Sisters in Islam that a 2014 Selangor state fatwa deeming the organization “deviant” represented an infringement on the group’s and members’ constitutional rights. The fatwa stated that Sisters in Islam deviated from the teachings of Islam because it subscribed to the principles of liberalism and pluralism, ruling that its books and materials could be seized, although the court did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” At a press conference outside the courtroom the NGO’s executive director said she was “very disappointed” in the decision, adding, “We are looking at really dark hours ahead for Malaysia.”
Government Human Rights Bodies: Created by an act of parliament, the official human rights commission SUHAKAM is headed by a chairperson and commissioners appointed by the king on the recommendation of the prime minister. Observers generally considered SUHAKAM a credible human rights monitor. It conducted training, undertook investigations, issued reports, and made recommendations to the government. SUHAKAM may not investigate court cases in progress and must cease its inquiries if a case becomes the subject of judicial action.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for limited freedom of association and for some categories of workers to form and join trade unions, subject to a variety of legal and practical restrictions. The law provides for the right to strike and to bargain collectively, but both were severely restricted. The law prohibits employers from interfering with trade union activities, including union formation. It prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for legal union activities and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.
The law prohibits defense and police officials, retired or dismissed workers, or workers categorized as “confidential, managerial, and executive” from joining a union. The law also restricts the formation of unions to workers in “similar” trades, occupations, or industries. Foreign workers may join a trade union but cannot hold union office unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Human Resources. In view of the absence of a direct employment relationship with owners of a workplace, contract workers may not form a union and cannot negotiate or benefit from collective bargaining agreements.
The director general of trade unions and the minister of human resources may refuse to register or withdraw registration from some unions without judicial oversight. The time needed for a union to be recognized remained long and unpredictable. Union officials expressed frustration about delays in the settlement of union recognition disputes; such applications were often refused. If a union’s recognition request was approved, the employer sometimes challenged the decision in court, leading to multi-year delays in recognizing unions.
Most private-sector workers have the right to bargain collectively, although these negotiations cannot include issues of transfer, promotion, appointments, dismissal, or reinstatement. The law restricts collective bargaining in “pioneer” industries the government has identified as growth priorities, including various high-technology fields. Public-sector workers have some collective bargaining rights, although some could only express opinions on wages and working conditions instead of actively negotiating. Long delays continued in the treatment of union claims to obtain recognition for collective bargaining purposes. The government also had the right to compel arbitration in the case of failed collective bargaining negotiations.
Private-sector strikes are severely restricted. The law provides for penal sanctions for peaceful strikes. The law prohibits general strikes, and trade unions may not strike over disputes related to trade-union registration or illegal dismissals. Workers may not strike in a broad range of industries deemed “essential,” nor may they hold strikes when a dispute is under consideration by the Industrial Court. Union officials claimed legal requirements for strikes were almost impossible to meet; the last major strike occurred in 1962.
The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting employers from seeking retribution for legal union activities and requiring reinstatement of workers fired for trade union activity. Penalties included fines but were seldom assessed and generally not sufficient to deter violations. In July the Federal Court upheld a lower-court ruling that two banks had promoted clerical staff to executive positions without giving them any executive powers in order to exclude the employees from the National Union of Bank Employees (Nube). The union’s lawyer called the decision “groundbreaking.”
Freedom of association and collective bargaining were not fully respected. National-level unions are prohibited; the government allows three regional territorial federations of unions–peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak–to operate. They exercised many of the responsibilities of national-level labor unions, although they could not bargain on behalf of local unions. The Malaysian Trade Unions Congress is a registered “society” of trade unions in both the private and government sectors that does not have the right to bargain collectively or strike but may provide technical support to affiliated members. Some workers’ organizations were independent of government, political parties, and employers, but employer-dominated or “yellow” unions were reportedly a concern.
The inability of unions to provide more than limited protection for workers, particularly foreign workers who continued to face the threat of deportation, and the prevalence of antiunion discrimination created a disincentive to unionize. In some instances, companies reportedly harassed leaders of unions that sought recognition. Some trade unions reported the government detained or restricted the movement of some union members under laws allowing temporary detention without charging the detainee with a crime. Trade unions asserted some workers had wages withheld or were terminated because of union-related activity.
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/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits the employment of children younger than 14 but permits some exceptions, such as light work in a family enterprise, work in public entertainment, work performed for the government in a school or in training institutions, or work as an approved apprentice. There is no minimum age for engaging in light work. For children between the ages of 14 and 18, there was no list clarifying specific occupations or sectors considered hazardous and therefore prohibited.
The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting child labor. Those found contravening child labor laws faced penalties that were not sufficient to deter violations.
Child labor occurred in some family businesses. Child labor in urban areas was common in the informal economy, including family food businesses and night markets, and in small-scale industry. Child labor was also evident among migrant domestic workers.
NGOs reported that stateless children in Sabah were especially vulnerable to labor exploitation in palm oil production, forced begging, and work in service industries, including restaurants. Although the National Union of Plantation Workers reported it was rare to find children involved in plantation work in peninsular Malaysia, others reported instances of child labor on palm oil plantations across the country. Commercial sexual exploitation of children also occurred (see section 6, Children).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law does not prohibit discrimination with respect to hiring; the director general of labor may investigate discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment for both foreign and local employees. The director general may issue necessary directives to an employer to resolve allegations of discrimination in employment, although there were no penalties under the law for such discrimination.
Employers are obligated to inquire into most sexual harassment complaints in a prescribed manner. Advocacy groups such as the Association of Women Lawyers stated these provisions were not comprehensive enough to provide adequate help to victims.
Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to women; members of national, racial, and ethnic minorities; and persons with disabilities. A code of practice guides all government agencies, employers, employee associations, employees, and others with respect to placement of persons with disabilities in private-sector jobs. Disability-rights NGOs reported that employers were reluctant to hire persons with disabilities. A regulation reserves 1 percent of public-sector jobs for persons with disabilities.
Migrant workers must undergo mandatory testing for more than 16 illnesses as well as pregnancy. Employers may immediately deport pregnant or ill workers. Migrant workers also faced employment discrimination (see sections 7.b. and 7.e.). Employers were unilaterally able to terminate work permits, subjecting migrant workers to immediate deportation.
Women experienced some economic discrimination in access to employment. Employers routinely asked women their marital status during job interviews. The Association of Women Lawyers advocated for passage of a separate sexual harassment bill making it compulsory for employers to formulate sexual harassment policies. The law prohibits women from working underground, such as in sewers, and restricts employers from requiring female employees to work in industrial or agricultural work between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. or to commence work for the day without having 11 consecutive hours of rest since the end of the last work period.
The government reserved large quotas for the bumiputra majority for positions in the federal civil service as well as for vocational permits and licenses in a wide range of industries, which greatly reduced economic opportunity for minority groups (see section 6).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The minimum wage applied to both citizen and foreign workers in most sectors, with the exception of domestic service (see below). The minimum wage rates were less than Ministry of Finance-published poverty income levels in Sabah and Sarawak.
Working hours may not exceed eight per day or 48 per week, unless workers receive overtime pay. The law specifies limits on overtime, which vary by sector, but it allows for exceptions. The law protects foreign domestic workers only with regard to wages and contract termination. The law excludes them from provisions that would otherwise stipulate one rest day per week, an eight-hour workday, and a 48-hour workweek. Instead, bilateral agreements or memoranda of understanding between the government and some source countries for migrant workers include provisions for rest periods, compensation, and other conditions of employment for migrant domestic workers, including prohibitions on passport retention.
In January 2018 employers became responsible for paying a levy for their foreign workers, a move designed to better protect low-wage foreign workers and to encourage the hiring of local employees. Previously, employers regularly passed the costs on to employees and withheld as much as 20 percent of a worker’s annual salary to cover the levy.
The Ministry of Human Resources began enforcing amendments to the Private Employment Agencies Act (PEAA) in 2018. The measure aims to make the cost of business too high for small-scale recruiting agencies that have been sources of abuses in the past. Employment agencies must now pay as much as RM250,000 ($62,500) to operate a business that recruits foreign workers, a significant increase from the RM1,000 ($250) required under the original PEAA. In addition, agencies must secure a guaranteed bank note for as much as RM250,000 ($62,500) that would be liquidated (and used for victim repatriation costs) if they are found to be in violation of the law. Under a new amendment, agencies found operating without a license face tough new penalties, including a RM200,000 ($50,000) fine and a maximum three years in prison, an increase from the previous RM5,000 ($1,250) fine.
Migrant workers often worked in sectors where violations were common, performed hazardous duties, and had no meaningful access to legal counsel in cases of contract violations and abuse. Some workers alleged their employers subjected them to inhuman living conditions and physically assaulted them. Employers of domestic workers sometimes failed to honor the terms of employment and subjected workers to abuse. Employers reportedly restricted workers’ movement and use of mobile telephones; provided substandard food; did not provide sufficient time off; sexually assaulted workers; and harassed and threatened workers, including with deportation.
Occupational health and safety laws cover all sectors of the economy except the maritime sector and the armed forces. The law requires workers to use safety equipment and cooperate with employers to create a safe, healthy workplace, but it does not specify a right to remove oneself from a hazardous or dangerous situation without penalty. Laws on worker’s compensation cover both local and migrant workers but provide no protection for migrant domestic workers.
The National Occupational Safety and Health Council–composed of workers, employers, and government representatives–creates and coordinates implementation of occupational health and safety measures. It requires employers to identify risks and take precautions, including providing safety training to workers, and compels companies with more than 40 workers to establish joint management-employee safety committees.
The Department of Labor of the Ministry of Human Resources enforces wage, working condition, and occupational safety and health standards. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The number of labor enforcement officers was insufficient to enforce compliance in businesses and households that employ domestic help. Department of Labor officials reported they sought to conduct labor inspections as frequently as possible. Nevertheless, many businesses could operate for years without an inspection.
Penalties for employers who fail to follow the law begin with a fine assessed per employee and can rise to imprisonment. Employers can be required to pay back wages plus the fine. If they refuse to comply, employers face additional fines per day that wages are not paid. Employers or employees who violate occupational health and safety laws are subject to fines, imprisonment, or both. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Employers did not respect laws on wages and working hours. The Malaysian Trade Union Congress reported that 12-, 14-, and 18-hour days were common in food and other service industries.
According Department of Occupational Safety and Health statistics, 127 workers died, 3,491 acquired a nonpermanent disability, and 131 acquired permanent disability in work-related incidents in the first half of the year.