KUALA LUMPUR: The smell was foul. You could see rats and cockroaches running in all directions. Folded cardboard boxes were stacked against the wall while clothes hung on makeshift clotheslines.
This is the scene that ‘greeted’ law enforcement officers from the Department of Labor of Peninsular Malaysia (JTKSM) when they raided a hostel – set over two floors of a three storey store where 40 foreigners employed by a retailer were staying in Bandar Tun Razak, Cheras, here – during a recent operation on forced labor and human trafficking.
In addition to their deplorable living conditions, the workers are forced to share their space with the merchant’s stocks and sleep on folded boxes. Ventilation was poor and leaking pipes had caused puddles of water to form on the floor.
An employer representative, interviewed by Bernama during the operation, claimed that the company had fulfilled its responsibility to provide accommodation but had “no time to monitor living conditions and amenities “, adding that she had left it to the workers to solve any problems they face.
Following the five-hour operation, the employer was found to have breached various provisions of the Minimum Standards of Employee Accommodation, Accommodation and Amenities Act 1990 (Act 446) and the Employment Act 1955.
NEGLECTING THE WELL-BEING OF WORKERS
Similar operations carried out by the authorities in the past have also uncovered various violations committed by employers across the country.
According to JTKSM, a total of 1,285 investigation files were opened between February 2021 and March this year for offenses committed under Law 446.
Of these cases, 135 have already been prosecuted and fined a total of RM1 million. Another 908 cases have been issued for a total amount of RM10.5 million while the rest are awaiting action from the Deputy Attorney General’s office.
Despite the operations and legal cases brought against them, many employers continue to neglect the well-being of their workers, especially with regard to safety and health.
JTKSM Deputy Director General (Operations), Mohd Asri Abd Wahab, said his department, in its efforts to tackle the problem of forced labor and improve labor management in the country, found the situation “very worrying”.
“Every time we conduct an operation, we find that failure to comply with Law 446 is among the top violations committed by employers, most of whom have a large workforce and do not provide suitable accommodations,” said he told Bernama.
It was reported that as of December last year, 50% of the 37,662 employers in Malaysia had yet to obtain the accommodation certificate from JTKSM, as required by amendments to Act 446 which have been enforced. June 1, 2020.
IMPROVE ACT 446
Under Section 24D of Law 446, an employer or centralized hosting provider can be sued for failing to obtain a hosting certificate from JTKSM.
According to Mohd Asri, the certificate will only be issued by JTKSM if the employer or centralized accommodation provider provides accommodation that meets the minimum standards specified by Law 446, which include the provision of utilities and amenities such as bathroom, toilet, bed and mattress. as well as space for cooking, resting and eating.
“An employer who fails to do so may be fined up to RM50,000 while the centralized hosting provider faces a fine of up to RM50,000 and a prison term of up to a year or two,” he explained.
Mohd Asri also said his department is currently in the process of amending Law 446 to further improve the law and incorporate the provisions enshrined in the recently expired 2021 Emergency Ordinance.
He said the amendment will give the Chief Executive (JTKSM) the power to order employers to replace, renovate or repair housing or accommodation found to be unsuitable and unsafe for workers.
Mohd Asri said the government is serious in its efforts to improve the welfare of its foreign workers in line with Malaysia’s decision to ratify Protocol 29 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 21.
Protocol 29 is an additional protocol to the Forced Labor Convention which was ratified by Malaysia in 1957. Malaysia is the 58th country in the world to ratify Protocol 29, signifying the government’s commitment to combat labor forced in all its forms, including human trafficking.
The ILO has defined 11 indicators of forced labour, including the withholding of identity documents such as passports and personal documents without workers’ authorization and the isolation of workers so that they cannot be contacted or traced.
“There are also employers who abuse workers because of their vulnerabilities and who don’t have much education, are poor and have nowhere to go.
“Many employers also don’t care how long their workers work or what kind of work they do as long as they get food and shelter, which forces them (employers) to take advantage of their workers by not paying them for the work done. ,” he added.
Meanwhile, Mohd Shazwan Mokhtar, a professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said Law 446 needs to be supported by other mechanisms to enable employers to provide housing and welfare needs. basis to their workforce.
He also called for regular operations or monitoring by authorities who, he added, should require employers to submit reports on the welfare of their employees.
Mohd Shazwan also felt that the complaints platform should be improved to facilitate the transmission of information to the authorities, in particular JTKSM.
He said using digital platforms such as a complaints app or setting up one-stop shops or kiosks in industrial zones will allow workers to file complaints if they are abused by their employers.
“If we were to observe, the problem of forced labor usually occurs in the sector of ‘dirty, difficult and dangerous’ (3D) jobs. It’s really unfortunate for mistreated foreign workers if they don’t have a proper place or channel to complain.
“In terms of enforcement, the government needs to consider recommendations to strengthen its enforcement capacity,” he said.
It was previously reported that Malaysia has only around 400 labor inspectors nationwide, insufficient to monitor all businesses and inspect their premises for forced labor and other forms of abuse.
Translated by Rema Nambiar