Safeguarding foreign migrant workers in Malaysia
Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, millions of pairs of rubber gloves are being used every day in hospitals and clinics, at COVID testing sites, and by the average person to provide personal protection against the spread of the virus. As a result, global demand for rubber gloves has grown significantly to an estimated 400 to 600 billion pieces. Malaysia currently produces about 67% of the world’s rubber gloves. That’s over 250 billion rubber gloves this year – and counting. Of the approximately 65,000 people employed in the rubber glove manufacturing industry in Malaysia, over 42,000 are foreign migrant workers.
Migrant worker and labor standards risks in Malaysia
Most migrant workers come from countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar – countries that have sent thousands of people to work overseas each year due to limited economic opportunities at home. Malaysia has long been a draw for foreign migrant workers due to its high availability of low skill requirements and decent wages.
Malaysia is not a country without its risks. It has been the focus of numerous investigations into labor rights abuses and forced labor in its key industries including palm oil, apparel, construction, rubber, and electronics manufacturing. Since the early 2000s, international media, civil society organizations, and labor rights activists have been highlighting cases of forced labor in these industries. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitative labor practices due to poor legal protections under Malaysian law and the high rate of irregular migrants in low-skilled jobs.
Remediating a history of recruitment fees in the glove industry
In recent years forced labor, associated with recruitment fees and related costs has been identified in the rubber glove manufacturing industry. With huge volumes of rubber gloves being produced to support the fight against COVID-19 across the world, Malaysia has been increasing its production and in turn, has put pressure on the rubber glove supply chain and manufacturers – exacerbating underlying and existing vulnerabilities for migrant workers.
The issuance by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) Withhold Release Orders (WROs) in September 2019 and July 2020 for disposable medical rubber gloves, effectively halted imports of rubber gloves from a major manufacturer, Top Glove, and has served as a wake-up call for the buyers of rubber gloves. To date, the industry has committed to significant repayments of migrant worker recruitment fees. Top Glove has responded to the issuance of the WROs by beginning a structured plan to repay workers for recruitment fees paid to agents or other third parties employed by Top Glove. As of October 2020, the total Top Glove recruitment fee reimbursement is estimated to be US $32.77 million, to be repaid to workers over 10 months.
Other companies have begun to follow suit, with manufacturer Hartalega Holdings Bhd committing to the reimbursement of up to US $9.8 million in recruitment fees. At ELEVATE we have been working with several companies in the apparel and glove manufacturing sector in Malaysia supporting the recruitment fee reimbursement process.
Paying back workers should align with a transparent protocol
Going forward, ELEVATE is actively trying to support the industry in promoting responsible recruitment practices within each manufacturer’s operation and to drive positive change in the industry. Based on our 10+ years of experience in Malaysia focusing on foreign migrant worker-related issues, we provide advice and recommendations on the methodology and implementation of the remediation programs. This includes a review of the program’s eligibility criteria, reimbursement fee amounts per nationality, payment terms and protocols, as well as the company’s hiring and due diligence policies and practices.
We also support employers to contact and directly reimburse workers who may have ran away from the factories and their recruitment fee repayment requirements or repatriated to their home countries. Once payments are made, ELEVATE’s local teams conduct payment verifications via worker interviews and payslip/bank statement review to validate that workers received the right amount in full as per the remediation protocol. We follow a 90% Confidence Level and 5% Margin of Error to estimate the sample pool of workers for verification, ensuring a good balance across demographic lines such as gender, recruiter, and country of origin.
Access to the Suara Kami grievance mechanism
ELEVATE has also established an external grievance channel in Malaysia, Suara Kami (Our Voice), in partnership with the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA), to help reduce the vulnerability of migrant workers by providing a trusted, accessible means to raise grievances. Suara Kami is a multi-lingual external grievance channel that allows companies to gain greater visibility into their workplace’s conditions and identify new, emerging issues early on.
Companies sourcing from Malaysia are welcome to open a helpline as a service to suppliers and support the shared goal of protecting labor rights. To date, the Suara Kami helpline has received hundreds of calls relating to social compliance violations, working conditions, health and safety including COVID-related inquiries, and other general employment concerns including overtime payment and compensation. The helpline’s toll-free number is used as a trusted channel to communicate with workers who are eligible for receiving reimbursement for recruitment fees paid.
Opportunity for industry alignment
We believe that there is a unique opportunity for the rubber glove manufacturing industry to coalesce around a single approach to responsible recruitment and the repayment of recruitment fees for migrant workers. Despite recent positive actions to remediate conditions of forced labor in the industry, these efforts are individual and fragmented, leaving a gap for an industry-wide solution. The industry lacks a singular, cohesive vision of what best practice in responsible recruitment and recruitment fee reimbursement looks like. There needs to be a well-coordinated approach to be truly effective and to create long-lasting, meaningful change.
It is ELEVATE’s view that each company can have an impact, but no one company can undertake this task alone and therefore this is a call to action to bring different stakeholders – including manufacturers, buyers, and brands – to the table to unite around this important cause. This will be no easy feat – however, if there ever was going to be an opportune time for the industry to act, that time is now.
For further information, please contact Rhiannon Hall here.