A shocking investigation just revealed the abuse migrant workers face

Electronics factory
Chris Jarvis

Migrant workers in factories supplying major western tech brands face forced labour, debt bondage, and threats of violence. That’s according to a new investigation of a Malaysian electronics factory.

The Danish media investigation group Danwatch, carried out the investigation. It gathered the findings from interviews with factory workers.

Labour rights abuses

In its shocking report, Danwatch alleges:

  • Migrant workers had to pay between €950 and €1,150 to get work. For those who can’t pay this upfront, recruitment fees accrue as debt. They then pay this off over their first year of working in Malaysia. Danwatch allege this will “make workers vulnerable to debt bondage in Malaysia.” Debt bondage is where people have to work to pay off their debts. It is a form of modern slavery.
  • Migrant workers having passports confiscated, and employers demanding large sums of money to have them returned. One worker claims that after being laid off the company stopped paying her wages and refused to return her passport. The company then allegedly demanded €870 for its return and for the cost of a flight back to Nepal. This causes workers to remain in Malaysia as undocumented migrants.
  • Employers threatening to report migrant workers to authorities if they ask for documents back. Danwatch claims that such migrants “risk being deported and blacklisted from entering Malaysia”. The media investigation group also claims they could be subject to violent punishments such as whipping and spending long periods in detention.
  • Workers accusing employers of using violent threats against workers. One worker claims workers asking for their wages risked being ‘beaten up’. The same worker also described one incident in which a knife was used to intimidate workers.
  • Excessive working hours, with workers facing 14 hour shifts. One worker even claims they worked for around twelve months without a day off.

Such allegations are shocking. If true, they show major workers’ rights abuses.

However, the employer denies all the allegations. A spokesperson from the Possehl Group said its Malaysian factory:

is convinced that it has fully observed all regulations and legal requirements.

Industry-wide problems

According to Danwatch, these issues are common in the Malaysian electronics industry. Danwatch claims:

Malaysia has become one of the world’s greatest exporters of the basis of all modern electronics: computer chips. But in the process, the country became addicted to the labour of poor migrants working under modern slavery-resembling conditions.

Other evidence supports this claim. A study by Verité found that 32% of foreign workers in the Malaysian electronics industry are in a form of forced labour. Malaysia is also one of a few countries that hasn’t adopted an International Labour Organisation convention guaranteeing workers trade union rights.

“Disgusting lack of oversight”

Danwatch’s findings have attracted strong criticism from human rights campaigners. Speaking to The Canary, co-director of the student campaign group People & Planet J Clarke said:

This report adds further evidence to what People & Planet has been saying for years: Workers rights and migrant rights are inherently interlinked, and the violence of both borders and capitalism forces vulnerable people into unjust and unsafe situations.

They continued:

It is clear that large ‘household name’ electronics brands in the Global North have supply chains exposed to human and labour rights abuses

Clarke’s criticism was echoed by another People & Planet campaigner. Nick Werren from Surrey People & Planet accused the industry of a “disgusting lack of oversight”. Werren told The Canary:

This research clearly exemplifies a disgusting lack of oversight in the electronics supply chain, where companies are directly benefiting out of an economic model that is designed to exploit people in the Global South. We need structural change to mitigate this, as the abuses outlined in this report should never have happened in the first place.

Turning the tide on labour rights abuses

Danwatch’s investigation shines a light on some of the worst practices of the electronics industry. But it comes at a time when people are increasingly taking action to improve working conditions.

On 21 June, Lewisham Borough Council became the second local authority in the UK to join Electronics Watch. Electronics Watch is an independent labour monitoring organisation. It uses the purchasing power of public sector organisations to improve working conditions in supply chains. Since launching, more than 100 UK public sector bodies have joined.

And it’s already having an impact. By 2017, Electronics Watch had driven improvements in factories employing over 100,000 workers. According to Electronics Watch, these include:

  • Ending forced student labour in a factory in China.
  • Reimbursing recruitment fees and returning identity and work documents to workers in Thailand.
  • Reinstating workers illegally fired for union organising in the Philippines.

On the Danwatch findings and how they relate to Electronics Watch’s work, Clarke told The Canary: 

We encourage all UK institutions with obligations under the Modern Slavery Act to take seriously this evident risk of exposure in the electronics industry and take robust steps to mitigate by adopting worker-driven monitoring, such as that offered by Electronics Watch.

The revelations from Danwatch are shocking. But more and more organisations are taking action to stamp out labour rights abuses in their own supply chains. If that number grows, we could yet see widespread change. This could mean violations like these become a thing of the past.

Featured image via Steve Jurvetson – Wikimedia Commons

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