Mon, Dec 29, 2014 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: No escape for ‘forced laborers’ in Malaysia


A Nepalese worker using the pseudonym Manu shows his hands in Telok Panglima Garang, outside Kuala Lumpur, on Nov. 27.

Photo: AFP

Toiling for 12 hours a day in a Malaysian electronics factory amid broken promises on wages and working conditions, Manu dreams of returning to his Nepalese village, but is restrained by invisible shackles.

His passport has been illegally confiscated by his employers at the Japanese-owned plant on Kuala Lumpur’s gritty outskirts, and he is struggling to pay off recruitment fees that he owes them. He faces additional fines if he leaves.

Labor activists say such abuses are rife in Malaysia’s electronics manufacturing sector, a vital link in a global supply chain for major brands including Apple Inc, Hewlett-Packard Co, Sony Corp and Samsung Electronics Co.

Electronics account for one-third of the nation’s exports.

However, at least one-third — and possibly many more — of Malaysia’s 350,000 electronics workers face indentured servitude similar to “modern-day slavery,” a study released in September by US-based fair-labor group Verite said.

“When I talk to my father on the telephone, I tell him I cannot take this anymore,” Manu said, using a pseudonym to protect against employer reprisals.

Up to an estimated 60 percent of Malaysia’s electronics workers are thought to be vulnerable foreigners from impoverished nations, and Verite said that 94 percent of the foreign workers it surveyed had their passports seized.

“The problems are both more severe and more numerous than we anticipated,” Verite chief executive Dan Viederman told reporters.

Nearly 36 million people worldwide are trapped in forced labor, Australia-based Walk Free Foundation said last month, an issue generating increasing global concern.

This month, world religious leaders from various faiths, including Pope Francis, signed a declaration pledging efforts to end slavery and human trafficking by 2020.

Manu’s ordeal began in 2009 when he paid an employment agent in Nepal about US$1,300 to arrange assembly line work on electronic capacitors.

He feels it has been a litany of deception.

Manu takes home about US$320 monthly — a figure which is one-third less than what he says he was promised — after a range of vague deductions and other undisclosed costs.

He feels pressured to work overtime almost daily, even when sick, and said that supervisors send ill workers to a clinic that refuses to authorize medical leave.

“When I was very sick with a high fever for five days, the doctor still said I was okay to work,” Manu said.

The promise of free board has not materialized, and some workers live in a factory-arranged room with up to 15 others and one toilet.

“I want to tell [Indonesian President Joko Widodo] to build more factories and be successful, so that Indonesians do not need to come and work in Malaysia,” an Indonesian factory worker said.

The factory’s operators declined requests for comment. Interviewees asked that the factory not be identified, fearing retaliation.

After Verite’s report, Hewlett-Packard said it would closely monitor suppliers to ensure that they directly hire workers themselves and employ no forced workers.

Malaysia’s economy is a magnet for migrants from Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

An estimated 6 million foreign migrants — most of them thought to be undocumented — work in factories, plantations, restaurants and other jobs largely shunned by Malaysians.

However, there are perennial reports of worker abuse and lack of protection from authorities.

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