Empowering trade unions crucial to ending labour exploitation

March 31, 2022

The Malaysian Government has launched its first National Action Plan to combat Forced Labour. Furthermore they recently ratified the ILO 2014 Forced Labour Protocol and pledged to become an Alliance 8.7 Pathfinder country, hence committing to take effective measures to eradicate forced labour and child labour. Trade unions will be instrumental to implement these commitments.

Photo: Sumasri, maybe in her 60s, from Indonesia, abused in Malaysia © ILO/Steve McCurry

“Forced labour is an issue that affects us all – local and migrant workers, documented and undocumented and even the Malaysian economy. The government has now committed to ratify the ILO 2014 Forced Labour Protocol, which engage us as a country to act to prevent forced labour, protect the workers from this issue, enforce the labour laws, strengthen the partnerships, and develop and implement a national action plan on forced labour,” declared Mohd Effendy Abdul Ghani, Deputy President of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC).

Trade unions have always had a particularly important role in supporting decent work globally, representing workers in labour disputes, but also in collective bargaining and social dialogue processes, especially in countries where forced labour and child labour are rife.

In Malaysia, the ILO has been working in partnership with the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), in the framework of the ILO Bridge Project, to strengthen the role of trade unions in preventing, protecting, and remedying forced labour cases.


Forced Labour observed in Malaysia

Recently, evidence of the existence of forced labour and child labour were found in Malaysia’s rubber manufacturing and palm oil industries. It prompted international bans on imports, as well as the downgrading of the country in Tier 3 in the 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.

Constituting approximately 20–30% of the country’s workforce, migrant workers have long made headlines as victims of forced labour and human rights abuses such as passport confiscation, inhumane living conditions, and physical abuse.

About half of the estimated 3–4 million migrant workers in Malaysia thought to be undocumented, semi-skilled migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to debt bondage and forced labour.

Refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people also face a high risk of forced labour as they are denied access to legal employment due to their unrecognised status. As a result, they are forced to earn a living through informal and often exploitative work arrangements, which are unregulated and unprotected by labour laws.

These workers are all the more vulnerable as it is difficult for them to get their voice heard…


Giving a voice to migrant workers

Currently, Malaysian law prohibits migrant workers from forming new unions, though they are permitted to join unions founded by Malaysian citizens. “As a consequence, only an estimated 10% of migrant workers in Malaysia are unionised”, explains Kamarul Baharin Mansor, MTUC Secretary-General.

During the migration process, some migrant workers are made to sign an agreement by their employers which includes a clause that prohibits their participation in unions under threat of deportation. This confuses many migrant workers about their rights and may even deter them from seeking union support and protection. Yet, Kamarul explains that this clause is unlawful and should not be enforceable, as it directly contravenes the right to freedom of association, which is enshrined in Malaysia’s labour law.

This is why MTUC, in their mission to protect all workers and especially the most vulnerable, has taken an active role in reaching out to workers vulnerable to forced labour.


Protecting the most vulnerable

Among the key issues aiming to improve workers’ protection and reduce the likelihood of forced labour practices, MTUC has raised the need to simplify the procedure to recognize new trade unions and the need for more regular labour inspections by the Department of Labour.

MTUC also ran a series of webinars for migrant workers from the construction, manufacturing, and plantation sectors. With the ILO support, they developed a video, that shed light on the dire situations of some migrant workers in Malaysia, sometimes amounting to forced labour. The video also offers key recommendations on what can be done by different stakeholders.

Beyond being better informed, migrant workers also need support in terms of counselling, legal assistance, dispute resolution, training. They can find such services in the Migrant Worker Resource Centres maintained by MTUC in the states of Penang (north), Selangor (central) and Johor (south), thanks to the support of the ILO Migrant Workers Empowerment and Advocacy (MWEA) and Safe and Fair projects.


The way forward

Not only is forced labour socially and morally unacceptable, it is also a serious violation of human rights and a criminal offence under Malaysian law. Furthermore, the use of forced labour weakens the sustainability of businesses and can have a negative impact on the reputation of Malaysian goods internationally, potentially resulting in trade sanctions or import bans, which was already the case in the rubber glove and palm oil industries.


The ILO supported the Malaysian government, together with social partners, in the formulation of the National Action Plans on Forced Labour and Child Labour, that include concrete actions including the ratification of the ILO Forced Labour Protocol.

The Malaysia’s National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) comprised of the MTUC, the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) and the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR), also prepared proposals to amend some labour laws, including the Trade Unions Act and Employment Act.

Giving a voice to vulnerable workers is key to protect them from forced labour. This is why the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining should be a reality for all workers—whether migrant, refugee, stateless, or undocumented.

Read more:

International Labour Organisation (ILO) guidance on forced labour :

International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) guidance for trade unions: