Malaysia is in denial about the forced labour problem in some of its biggest companies, and the UK Government could be doing much more to stop this modern form of slavery.

When it listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange in 2012, FELDA Global Ventures, the world’s largest plantation operator, with over 2 million cultivated acres of oil palm oil, raised $3.1 billion. It was the second largest share offering that year after Facebook on NASDAQ.

Towards the end of 2020 the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) blocked import shipments from this same Malaysian company.

They found indications of forced and child labour, abusive conditions and debt bondage within its workforce of more than 15,000 Indian and Indonesian workers.

Top Glove accused of using forced labour 

Earlier, in July, the CBP had blocked rubber gloves from Top Glove, the world’s largest producer and another Malaysian company, for forced labour among its 11,000 migrant workers.

These Malaysian companies are worthy successors to the regime that made British Malaya one of the most profitable territories of the Empire.

Long-term servitude through debt bondage was key to the success of local plantations, which brought over a million Indian immigrant workers to Malaya between 1844 and 1938 (oil palm plantation worker, pictured above).

This imported labour faced long hours of arduous work, harsh working and living conditions, low wages, malnutrition, poor health, and regular flogging for discipline.

Over a century later it seems little has changed. Top Glove, despite claiming innocence, will pay about US$40 million in reparations to impoverished workers so it can regain access to the US market.

Debt bondage is still alive today 

The Los Angeles Times reported that company documents revealed the migrants paid mandatory recruitment fees, which trapped them in debt even before they began their employment.

A century ago, the costs of passage from India to Malaya were recovered as two years of a labourer’s wages. Then, as now, their low wages made it impossible to clear what they owed and so they were caught in a cycle of debt.

Malaysia was once an Asian Tiger but is now long in the tooth. It is politically fragile after a corruption fiasco involving the then Prime Minister shook the country, and still has some of its top companies operating a modern version of indentured labour. This former colony exhibits a stubbornness for keeping the old ways alive.

Modern Slavery Act has a part to play 

Britain has an opportunity to remedy this long-running re-enactment of a really bad play. The UK Government must better enforce the Transparency in Supply Chains clause in the Modern Slavery Act, which will ultimately force Malaysian suppliers to raise their game or not get UK business.

Slavery in any form must not be in products on our shelves. We need to respect sovereignty, but the UK has an obligation to remind all nations, perhaps especially those in the Commonwealth, that we have evolved away from such inhumanity.

The Malaysian Government has said “no offences involving forced labour elements were detected” in Top Glove’s factories except non-compliance on social distancing, garnering fines of RM1,000 (£250).

It is equally unlikely that Malaysia will investigate or take action against FELDA, a company which is effectively controlled by the Malaysian Government, and for which forced labour issues have been well-documented for years. Unlike deforestation, say, slavery does not show up on a satellite image.

Malaysia was a worthy model of development for others in the Commonwealth to emulate – and it can be so again.

Britain has an opportunity to help make this happen by shining a light on any shadow of the past.

This is a guest article by By Puvan J Selvanathan, former UN Independent Expert on Business and Human Rights

Photos: iStock

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Justine Currell

As I came to understand more about the issue, including through a visit to an Unseen safehouse, I knew I needed to do more to stop this abuse and exploitation.

For the last five years of my Civil Service career, I was the Modern Slavery Senior Policy Advisor in the Home Office and led on development of the Modern Slavery Act, including the transparency in supply chains provision and business guidance.

I joined Unseen to lead the development of the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, and Unseen’s work with businesses. I am regularly called upon to present at national and international conferences and use my experience of working with Ministers to influence other governments internationally to take action to address modern slavery and, in particular, business supply chain issues.

In my spare time I enjoy keeping fit, music, reading and travelling.

Andrew Wallis

What ultimately compelled me to act was a report on how people from Eastern Europe were being trafficked through Bristol airport to the USA. Kate Garbers, who went on to be an Unseen Director, and I wrote to all the city councillors, MPs and the Police Chief Constable challenging them on the issue. The challenge came back to us: this city needs safe housing for trafficked women. And so Unseen began.

But we never wanted Unseen to be just about safe housing. We wanted to end slavery once and for all, and that remains our driving focus.

I chaired the working group for the Centre for Social Justice’s landmark report “It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to Fight Modern Slavery”. This is now acknowledged as the catalyst behind the UK’s Modern Slavery Act of 2015. It was a great honour to be awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours that year. On the other hand, I’ve also been described as “the loveliest disrupter you could ever hope to meet”.

This job has taken me from building flat-pack furniture for safehouses, to working with businesses to address slavery in supply chains, to delivering training, raising awareness and advising governments around the world.

When not at work, I enjoy travelling, spending time with my dog Harley, cooking, supporting Liverpool and Yorkshire CC, music (I’m a former DJ) and endurance events such as the Three Peaks Challenge and Tribe Freedom Runs – which I vow never to do again. Until the next time.