The Malaysian Bar commends the government’s recent ratification of the International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Convention, known as Protocol 29, on 21 March.
This ratification, that was preceded by the national action plan on forced labour (2021-25) and launched on 26 November 2021 by the government, is testament of our country’s determination to resolve and end forced labour.
The strong position taken by the government is a much-needed declaration on the pressing need to eliminate forced labour, especially in light of the eight “withhold release orders” issued by the US Customs and Border Protection from 2019 to 2022, which prohibits the import of merchandise mined, manufactured, or produced, wholly or in part in Malaysia, by, among other things, forced labour. Six of these withhold release orders are still active today and are against companies in the rubber and oil palm industries.
The Malaysian Bar continues to advocate rapid and added progress in this matter, given the significance of the forced labour problem at hand, as reflected by the observation made by the International Organization for Migration:
Between 2018 to 2020, the Malaysian government officially estimated that the country hosted approximately 1.4 to 2 million documented migrants, and unofficial estimates of 1.2 to 3.5 million additional migrants (as reported by the World Bank) – thus making Malaysia the largest migrant-receiving country in Southeast Asia … Labour migrants in these corridors are key contributors to the economies of both Malaysia and their countries of origin, representing an estimated 20 per cent of the Malaysian workforce (ILO) and dominating low-skilled and semi-skilled jobs.
It is evident that migrant workers contribute significantly to the economy and development of Malaysia. As a host country, it is our incumbent duty to ensure that all workers, both domestic and foreign, are safe from exploitation and forced labour. This duty demands proper legislative amendments which must then be followed by effective enforcement.
There is no doubt that Malaysia’s ratification of Protocol 29 is a step in the right direction. However, as Malaysia now has a seat on the UN Human Rights Council and is also a signatory to the Forced Labour Convention C029, we urge the government to work closely with all relevant stakeholders, including civil societies and the Malaysian Bar, to amend our relevant national laws so that they are bought in line with C029 and Protocol 29. This includes further amendments to the law to ensure that companies practise ethical recruitment and effective due diligence procedures, and comply with the relevant labour laws to weed out forced labour practice.
The Malaysian Bar reiterates our call for the Ministry of Human Resources Malaysia to accept labour complaints from undocumented workers, who are at greater risk of forced labour, as they are not accorded access to justice due to their irregular status.
There must be continued efforts to ensure that our position against forced labour rings loud and clear, internationally and nationally.
The Malaysian Bar is ready to work closely with all stakeholders and the government to provide any assistance towards realising this objective. While the road to progress is neither swift nor easy, the steps that we take with sagacity will hopefully lead to us successfully eliminating forced labour in Malaysia.
Karen Cheah Yee Lynn is president of the Malaysian Bar
This piece is reproduced from here and has been edited for style only.