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Tackling passport retention in palm oil

June 19, 2018

Ending passport retention is possible! In Malaysia, many employers see no harm in keeping their employees’ passports as a way to avoid turn over. However, some companies have started questioning this common practice and have found a way to ensure that their workers have a safe, secure and accessible location for their passports.  

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Passport retention is a key issue for both migrant workers and their employers in Malaysia.

Workers without their passports do not enjoy freedom of movement and many other liberties that come with holding one’s passport, thus making it an indicator of forced labour. Furthermore, consent to the retention of passports is questionable due to the unequal bargaining power between worker and employer. Even if they arrive legally in Malaysia, migrant workers risk being reported to or stopped by authorities, who may enforce immigration laws on those without passports. The consequences of flouting such laws can be detention, caning and deportation. “We have seen too many cases where foreign workers are at the mercy of exploitative employers who hold them at ransom by keeping their passports”, notes Joseph Solomon, Secretary-General of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress.

Retention of passports is a nationwide, multi-sectoral practice. Employers in the palm oil industry frequently face labour shortages and rely on foreign labour for continued operation. They assert that they retain passports so that they cannot be lost or damaged. Replacement causes burdensome and costly bureaucratic difficulties. Passports are also retained to deter abscondment and facilitate renewal of work permits.

“Passport retention is unlawful and the authorities should take to task any employer violating this law”, asserts Mr Solomon. Although awareness of human rights issues remains low, many companies are starting to understand that access to international markets is linked to respect for workers’ rights; and that negative practices, such as passport retention, should cease. In recent years, media allegations of human rights violations in Malaysian oil palm plantations have shed more light on such issues.

The Forest Trust (TFT) is a global non-profit actively promoting the return of passports. Since 2016, TFT has been supporting businesses in efforts to mainstream passport-return in palm oil supply chains. As a result, several companies in Malaysia have begun handing back passports to their workers; installing lockers and giving workers the keys so that they have a safe space and easy access to their passport.

Lockers do not solve everything but could represent the start of a completely different mind-set regarding workers’ rights in Malaysia. After engaging with TFT on passports, some companies have started to draft policies to promote respect for workers’ rights. These policies cover employment contracts, fair wages, elimination of forced and bonded labour, ethical recruitment, and health and safety at the workplace. But change does not happen overnight.

“Engagement is an important part of the change process with businesses,” said Natasha Mahendran, Project Manager for Social and Human Rights at TFT. “Once there is trust, they are more receptive to new ideas, like how returning passports can improve the relationship between employer and employee.”

From Natasha’s experience, it is important that the companies take ownership of the change journey. Several companies started with a pilot – returning passports and providing lockers in some estates or mills, and then gradually extending this when they realized it was feasible. Differences in size of the businesses that TFT deals with – from large to smaller scale – demonstrate that employers can make changes happen despite very different resources.

The Forest Trust (TFT) is an international non-profit organization that helps companies transform their supply chains across the world for the benefit of people and nature.

In Malaysia, the ILO works with the Malaysian Government, workers’ and employers’ representatives, and other civil society organizations to increase knowledge, awareness, and ratification and application of the ILO Protocol in the country; improve and develop responsive national policies and/or action plans and/or legislation on forced labour and child labour; increase efforts to collect reliable data in order to carry out research and share knowledge across institutions at national level; and strengthen workers’ and employers’ organizations to support the fight against forced labour in partnership with other interested parties.

The TFT project on passport return is not funded by the ILO.