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Business & human rights in Malaysia: A report from Kuala Lumpur

Annabel Short, Irene Pietropaoli, and Sumi Dhanarajan (board member), Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre's board member Sumi Dhanarajan, and staff members Annabel Short and Irene Pietropaoli, visited Kuala Lumpur in June 2015.

Malaysia has been in the international spotlight recently over the Asia migrant crisis.  Authorities have exhumed bodies of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar buried in 139 grave sites in the jungle near the Thai border.  This extreme case of abuse is, however, part of a much wider and under-reported pattern of exploitation of migrants who travel to Malaysia in search of a better life. 

On a recent mission to Kuala Lumpur, team members from Business & Human Rights Resource Centre spoke with local NGOs, lawyers, academics and companies, to explore the intersection between business and labour abuses of migrant workers - as well as other private sector-related human rights impacts in the country. 

A “hidden” workforce              

Many migrants from other countries in Southeast and South Asia reach Malaysian cities and plantations to work in the construction, electronics, manufacturing and palm oil sectors.  There are currently 2.9 million documented migrant workers in Malaysia, and an estimated 3.1 million undocumented workers.  According to the ILO, they are a hidden and neglected workforce.

The law prevents migrant workers from forming their own trade unions.  While technically they are allowed to join existing unions, in reality they face major barriers in doing so, and cannot hold office within them.  Several people we met with also flagged the important role of unscrupulous labour brokers, who undertake corrupt practices, often resulting in human rights abuse for the migrants.  For example, as officials allegedly receive bribes for issuing work permits, more are issued than there are jobs available: the “extra” workers are housed in poor conditions and sub-contracted out at the behest of the brokers.  Women are particularly vulnerable in these situations, sometimes forced into the sex trade in order to pay back recruitment fees.

We met with Tenaganita (“Women’s Force” in Malay), which has been working to protect women migrant workers since the early 1990s.   Tenaganita is encouraging companies in Malaysia to recruit their migrant workforces directly from sending countries, rather than through brokers. 

Construction sites are everywhere in Kuala Lumpur, including for the MRT (“Mass Rapid Transport”) system.   Shortly after our visit, a Bangladeshi migrant worker died while working on the MRT construction – the fifth worker to die on the project.  Tenaganita said that since the victim was working under a sub-subcontractor (under three layers of contracted work), the company is likely to get away with its non-compliance of occupational health and safety standards.  Tenaganita described the situation as one of “subhuman conditions under sub-subcontractors”

Women at risk

Female workers, especially employed in domestic work or contractual cleaning jobs are inadequately protected against sexual harassment in the workplace and gender discrimination.  NGOs such as AWAM conduct gender-awareness training for companies.  International Women Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW-AP) has produced videos and guidance on business & womens' rights.

In a positive development last year, a woman won a landmark gender discrimination case against the government when she was refused employment as a temporary teacher on becoming pregnant.  As a rule though, Malaysian courts rarely hold corporations liable for breaches of constitutionally-guaranteed fundamental rights.  According to the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR), the “State Duty to Protect” from business abuses is not recognized.

Land rights of indigenous peoples

Major hydropower projects are underway for the SCORE project (“Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy”), in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak.  National and international groups advocating for indigenous people’s rights including JOAS (Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia) and International Rivers have frequently raised concerns about the displacement of indigenous peoples for this project. 

Most recently, they called on the Asian Development Bank not to grant a loan to Sarawak Energy for the Trans-Borneo electricity transmission line, alleging that the company failed to adequately consult local communities along its route.  For its part, Sarawak Energy says that due consultation was conducted.  It also says that the company is applying lessons learned through the re-location for the Murum Dam, to the process for the Baram Dam currently under construction. 

In Peninsular Malaysia, an indigenous peoples – “Orang Asli” – community has filed a lawsuit against Tenaga Nasional Berhad claiming that they were permanently re-settled to accommodate a power plant without their consent.

Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

A coalition of Malaysian groups has come together under the umbrella “Bantah TPPA” to challenge the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, on the grounds that its provisions could further undermine labour rights, harm small-sized businesses, and restrict access to affordable medicines.

Action underway

The current political situation in Malaysia has many local human rights actors focused on protecting civic space – for example challenging the controversial Sedition (Amendment) Act 2015, which is being used to silence critics.  However, the commitment towards addressing business’ human rights impacts is growing.  In fact, many civil society actors expressed interest in strengthening their capacity to influence corporate engagement with human rights issues through advocacy as well as dialogue.  

A few examples of action underway:

SUHAKAM, the national human rights commission, receives and reviews complaints of alleged human rights abuses by business.  It has also developed a draft “Strategic Framework for a National Action Plan” on business & human rights, which is currently under consideration by the government for development into a full plan.

International Women Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW-AP) is working with their member organisations to encourage engagement with the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights throughout the region. 

Roundtable on Sustainable Oil Plantation (RSPO), is guiding its member companies on steps to respect human rights, handling cases of alleged abuse through its complaints process.  Its newly-established working group on business & human rights seeks to strengthen this aspect of its mandate.

Lawyers are assisting communities in bringing human rights cases against companies, for example Raj, Yudistra & Ong which is working on the Tenaga Nasional Berhad case mentioned above, and BON Advocates.

Building on the many activities underway in Malaysia, there are opportunities to:

  • continue expanding civil society efforts that address private sector impacts;
  • raise awareness among business of a human rights approach, and provide access to relevant tools & guidance
  • encourage media reporting on allegations of misconduct by companies
  • and fully develop the draft “Strategic Framework” for a National Action Plan on business & human rights into a formal NAP.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre will be highlighting progress and challenges in Malaysia, seeking company responses to allegations of misconduct and featuring positive developments.  Check the “Malaysia” section of our online library for updates.

Further details:

Who was on the mission to Kuala Lumpur?

Sumi Dhanarajan, board member of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre; Annabel Short, Program Director @bellshort / email; and Irene Pietropaoli, Researcher @IPietropaoli / email

Examples of organizations in Malaysia working on business & human rights-related issues

Note: Feel free to be in touch with others! 

Civil society

AWAM

Bantah TPPA

Malaysian Bar Council

IWRAW-AP @IWRAW_AP

JOAS

National Union of Bank Employees

PANAP – Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific

Tenaganita

WWF Malaysia

National human rights institution

SUHAKAM

Multi-stakeholder

Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil

Business

BURSA Malaysia

UN Global Compact Malaysia

American Chamber of Commerce – Malaysia

Legal

Bon Advocates

Raj, Ong & Yudistra

Government

Ministry of Governance & Integrity (overseeing next steps on National Action Plan on business & human rights)

Charles Santiago (MP) @mpklang