At a two-acre confectionary manufacturing complex in Malaysia, workers make chocolates, biscuits and other treats. But behind the pretty packaging and its candied contents, say some of the 60 Nepali migrant workers employed at the firm, is a work environment that includes physical abuse to force workers to produce sweets.

The confectionary company is no outlier. Since January, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), and the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), both Solidarity Center allies, have documented hundreds of cases of employer abuse of migrant workers in Malaysia, often rising to the level of forced labor. Many of these workers, from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China and elsewhere, report that their employer has not paid them, or has given them wages far below what they had been promised before leaving their home countries. If they are injured on the job, the employer does not pay for their medical care.

A significant number of the migrant workers say they have been physically abused by their employer and forced to live and sleep in unsanitary conditions with no electricity, running water or even mattresses to sleep on. Most are virtually held hostage by their employer, who in nearly all cases, confiscates their passports, rendering them unable to flee desperate and deplorable conditions, potentially making them victims of human trafficking.

The widespread abuse reported across industries and the number of workers involved demonstrate that these cases are not isolated incidents involving rogue employers, but workplace practices condoned within an officially sanctioned environment that denies fundamental human rights. A few examples include:

  • Arjunan, who came from India to Malaysia in 2014, was promised a salary of RM 1,200 ($316) a month, but his employer, a road contractor, paid him only RM 150 ($39) per month for food. When Arjunan protested, the employer called Arjunan’s wife and threatened to cut off her husband’s leg and hand. She pawned her jewelry and sent the money to the employer so the employer would return Arjunan’s passport, enabling him to travel home. The employer took the money, RM 4,500 ($1,188), but did not return Arjunan’s passport.
  • Dozens of primarily Indian and Nepali workers at one worksite say they were locked in the company dormitory each night with no beds or mattresses and forced to sleep on the floor. They were required to stand for 12 hours at work each day with only a 15-minute break for lunch. Their weekly day off was split into two half days.
  • After a machine sliced three of his fingers, Dhurba, 21, a migrant worker from Nepal, says his employer told him the company had no insurance to pay for his workplace injuries.
  • Ram, 28, who began working for his employer in 2012, says after two years in an abusive workplace, where he was physically beaten, the employer refused to let him return to his home in Nepal when his work contract expired. Some 18 Nepali migrant workers are employed at the worksite.
  • Workers at a global construction company, which employs more than 600 Nepalese workers, 200 Malaysian workers and 100 Bangladeshi workers, say they are forced to toil 16 hours a day, are regularly threatened with physical abuse, and are not paid the minimum wage.

The Asia-Pacific region has the greatest number of forced laborers in the world, accounting for more than 50 percent of all forced labor victims. Globally, forced labor generates $51 billion per year in illegal profits, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Thailand and Malaysia were among countries cited last year by the U.S. State Department as failing to comply with the minimum standards to address human trafficking over the past year.

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the News from The Solidarity Center