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.
“Our problem is that since we are the residents of [the] riverside and known as ‘Boat People,’ our children are suffering,” says a man who lives along the Indus River in Pakistan. The residents of his community make baskets and sell fish, and transport people along the river with boats they spend months making by hand.
“We are living a difficult life here because we neither have any school here nor any education facility provided by the government,” says another community member.
Some people say “these sailors are self-dependent, they are not a burden on the Pakistan economy,” explains politician Zartaj Gul. But in reality, she says, “we have cornered them and made them the untouchables of Pakistan.”
These excerpts from ”Life of Sailors,” one of 20 short films created by students at the Interactive Resource Center (IRC) in Lahore, Pakistan, highlight the economic and social struggles of a little-known community. Like ”Life of Sailors,” each video seeks to tell the story of a marginalized group within Pakistani society—and in less than 10 minutes each, say IRC Director Mohammad Waseem and Risham Waseem, IRC media project officer and Mohammad’s daughter.
The IRC specializes in citizen journalism, in which members of the public play an active role in collecting, reporting and disseminating news and information. The organization provides workshops for students not only on how to make documentaries but also on the importance of human rights advocacy. The 20 short films are just some of the final products of this interdisciplinary training.
In making these films, students were encouraged to uncover human stories that do not reach mainstream media, such as the story of the riverside residents. Another documentary shares the voices of street-side makers of khussas, traditional leather footwear in Pakistan and North India.
The videos do not just remain in the classroom—the IRC ensures they are seen by a broad spectrum of Pakistanis. For instance, the IRC organized a festival to showcase the films, followed by an open discussion.
Further, through creative and cultural tools, including radio, film and theater, the IRC encourages community mobilization and human rights advocacy. Waseem says citizen journalism is the most effective way to raise awareness for people who are denied their rights.
He cites the example of a student who filmed a report on a hospital in her community that she believed was not addressing people’s needs. Just “one minute of this video,” he says, was more effective “than a six-month U.N. (United Nations) investigation.”
The IRC’s message to marginalized groups in Pakistan, says Waseem, is that “they should have space in their country too.”
There is some good news for domestic workers in Kuwait: The National Assembly adopted a new law in June that will grant them unprecedented legal rights. The law applies to family maids, baby sitters, cooks and drivers.
More than 660,000 domestic workers are currently employed in Kuwait, most of them migrant workers from Asia and Africa. Human Rights Watch researcher Rothna Begum says this is a “major step forward” for Kuwait because for the first time it provides domestic workers with “enforceable labor rights.”
“Now those rights need to be made a reality,” she says, “and other Gulf states should follow Kuwait’s lead.”
Under the law, which brings Kuwait closer to compliance with internationally recognized labor standards, employers must grant domestic workers a maximum 12-hour workday with one day off per week and 30 days paid leave per year. The law also establishes a minimum wage of 45 Kuwaiti Dinar (around $150), guarantees end-of-service benefits—one month’s wage for every year worked—and bans employing domestic workers who are below age 20 or more than 50 years of age.
The National Assembly also voted to establish a shareholding company for recruiting domestic workers. The company would replace more than 300 independent offices, streamlining the recruitment process and limiting potential abuse of domestic workers. The assembly also voted to create Kuwait’s first National Human Rights Commission.
Begum, however, pointed out that some legal gaps remain. For example, it is not yet clear how the law will be enforced, and domestic workers still are not allowed to join unions to protect their rights.
Abdulrahman al-Ghanim, a migrant worker advocate at the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), says the law should only be the beginning. Migrant workers especially are in need of further protection, he says. In Kuwait and other Gulf countries, the current Kafala system—in which recruitment agencies sponsor migrant visas—makes it easy for employers to abuse domestic workers and then charges workers as criminals when they try to escape. Kafala is “a system of slavery,” he says.
“The new legislation is a start,” says Begum, pointing out that the law still does not match the standards for domestic workers established by the International Labor Organization (ILO). “Kuwait should continue improving protections for domestic workers,” she says.
Women garment workers primarily fuel Bangladesh’s $24 billion a year garment industry, yet women are “still viewed as basically cheap labor,” says Lily Gomes, Solidarity Center senior program officer for Bangladesh.
“There is a strong need for functioning factory-level unions led by women,” says Gomes, who is leading efforts to help empower women workers to take on leadership roles at factories and in unions throughout Bangladesh. Some 60 percent of garment factory unions are now led by women, she said, and they are leading contract negotiations and discussions with government over improving working conditions.
Gomes, a Reagan-Fascell Democracy fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, spoke last week in Washington, D.C., about the status of women, the legal protections (or gaps in those protections) for women workers, the recent deadly factory disasters and the ensuing international outcry and pressure on international clothing brands to demand workplace safety improvements.
This legal and international environment offers the opportunity to create “the political space for unions to organize, register and collectively bargain,” says Asia Regional Program Director Tim Ryan, who also spoke at the event.
“Women garment workers at the factory level, at the union and federation levels, are asserting themselves both as leaders in their organizations and now in their communities,” Ryan says.
But “the pressure both from below and above has to continue to maintain these gains women workers are making, and to further the fitful progress of democracy in Bangladesh.”
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