No escape for those stuck in Malaysian 'forced labour'
Toiling 12 hours a day in a Malaysian electronics factory amid broken promises on wages and working conditions, Manu dreams of returning to his poor Nepal village but is restrained by invisible shackles, AFP reports.
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 he owes them. He faces additional fines if he leaves.
Labour activists say such abuses are rife in Malaysia's electronics manufacturing sector, a vital link in a global supply chain producing components for major brands like Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Samsung.
Electronics account for one-third of the country's exports.
But at least one-third -- 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-labour group Verite said.
"When I talk to my father on the phone, I tell him I can't take this anymore," said Manu, a pseudonym to protect against employer reprisals.
Up to 60 percent of Malaysia's electronics workers are estimated to be vulnerable foreigners from impoverished countries, and Verite said 94 percent of foreign labourers it surveyed had their passports seized.
"The problems are both more severe and more numerous than we anticipated,” Verite CEO Dan Viederman told AFP.
Nearly 36 million people worldwide are trapped in forced labour, Australia-based Walk Free Foundation said in November, an issue generating increasing global concern.
In early December, world religious leaders from various faiths, including Pope Francis, signed a declaration pledging efforts to end slavery and human trafficking by 2020.
All work, no play
Manu's ordeal began in 2009 when he paid an employment agent in Nepal around $1,300 -- a large sum there -- to arrange work on an assembly line for electronic capacitors used in a range of products.
He feels it has been a litany of deception.
Manu takes home about $320 monthly -- a figure which is one-third less than the amount he says he was promised -- following a range of vague deductions and other costs not previously disclosed.
He feels pressured to work overtime almost daily, even when sick and claimed supervisors direct ailing workers to a specific clinic that refuses to authorise medical leave.
"When I was very sick with high fever for five days, the doctor still said I was okay to work," said Manu.
The promise of free board has not materialised, and some workers live in a single factory-arranged room with up to 15 others, and one toilet.
Some told AFP they had worked more than six months without rest. But quitting, applying for leave, or complaining can trigger illegal fines.
"I want to tell (Indonesian President Joko Widodo) to build more factories and be successful, so that Indonesians don't need to come and work in Malaysia," said an Indonesian worker at the factory.
The factory's operators declined AFP requests for comment. Interviewees asked that the factory not be identified, fearing retaliation.
Activists said a key exploitative factor is that many workers are paid and managed by third-party agents, leaving labourers in a grey area that prevents them seeking recourse from factory owners.
Following Verite's report, Hewlett-Packard said it would closely monitor suppliers to ensure they directly hire workers themselves and employ no forced labour.
Labour unrest is rare in Malaysia but recent incidents have sparked concern.
In August, Nepali workers went on strike at a factory run by JCY HDD Technology, a Malaysian manufacturer for US hard-drive and data-storage giants Western Digital and Seagate, among others.
They claimed a worker had died after slow and inadequate treatment for chest pains, blaming the factory, said the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), a labour advocacy group.
Days later, 20 suspected strike leaders were transferred to another JCY factory, where some claimed they were physically abused, it added.
"It was a form of punishment (for the strike)," said MTUC secretary-general Gopal Krishnam.
Anger boiled over, with hundreds rioting and authorities detaining dozens of workers.
Fifteen were sentenced to more than a year in jail, and a number of others deported, a Malaysian official has said. The company was cleared of wrongdoing.
'All about the money'
Malaysia's economy is a magnet for migrants from Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
An estimated six million foreign migrants, most of them illegal, work in factories, plantations, restaurants, and other jobs largely shunned by more-affluent Malaysians.
But there are perennial reports of worker abuse and lack of protection from authorities.
The US State Department's annual human-trafficking report demoted Malaysia in June to its lowest rung over forced labour, leaving it open to possible economic sanctions.
Verite’s report was commissioned by the US Labor Department.
The electronics sector "is facing the single biggest threat to its survival," opposition lawmaker Sim Tze Tzin said recently in calling for government action.
Authorities declined repeated AFP requests for comment, but the trade ministry said this month Malaysia opposes forced labour.
It said it would investigate the allegations and was liaising with US officials to "register our concern", but also said Verite's report was misleading.
But activists accuse the government of allowing grey areas in policy to ensure a cheap labour supply.
A stable electronics sector is now vital, amid warnings that falling prices of oil, a key Malaysian export, will clip exports and economic growth.
"It's all about the money," said Glorene Das of labour-rights group Tenaganita.
As it is for Manu, who dreams of going home when his current contract expires next year, but may not be able to.
"I'm not sure. I think I have to stay and work here. My family has no money. I have no choice," he said softly.