Corporate grievance mechanism in migrant workers accepting countries such as Malaysia mostly do not work when it concerns protecting the rights of foreign plantation labor, including in the oil palm sector, and much more still needed to be done, a number of experts are arguing.
“We are finding that a lot of the grievance mechanism, even when they have been set up, are not working and the reason they are not working is that workers do not feel comfortable to speak up,” Aarti Kapoor from Embode, a consultancy that among other focuses on child rights, ethical recruitment and labor protection, told a webinar on labor issue organized by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) on Tuesday (26/1)
Kapoor, whose organizations recently conducted a study looking at the situation of migrant workers in Malaysia with part of the focus on the palm oil sector, explained that this difficulty in speaking up among migrant workers stemmed from their extreme vulnerability.,
Jerald Joseph from the Human Right Commission of Malaysia, speaking at the same occasion said that migrant workers were vulnerable because of the precariousness of their position at work, especially in difficult time such as during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemics.
He said that it was the easiest solution for company that were encountering difficulties to let go migrant workers under various pretexts and that once they were let off, migrant workers would automatically become unregistered and therefore illegals if they did not leave the country. They were barred to officially seek another work in Malaysia and had no fallback system.
“So, we know vulnerability is big issue,” Joseph said speaking of migrant workers. He added that further increasing this vulnerability was the “desperate economic need” of these migrant workers.
He also pointed out that unlike their local colleagues, migrant workers being foreigners, could not set up unions, or if they joined unions in the country they worked in, they would not be able to hold active functions.
“Sadly, many of the foreign workers are not unionized and that makes them even more vulnerable in trying to defend their rights,” Joseph said.
Kapoor concurred saying that it was not just that foreign workers cannot hold office in trade unions and therefore their abuse are not represented in trade unions, but they also cannot associate themselves and that migrant workers were left with forming volunteer migrant worker networks to help migrants but these networks were not funded.
She said that to make grievance mechanism work, a cultural change within the plantations or the company was needed, so that migrant workers would feel empowered enough to speak up and complain or tell about their problems.
“We are focusing too much on compliance, focusing too much on check box exercises, but actually we need some attitudinal, behavioral, cultural changes in a lot of these companies,” she said.
Kapoor said that initiative to hear the voice of migrant workers voice initiatives needed to be supported by a culture in companies in plantations, a culture where workers were able to directly communicate with their employers.
“It is about having a relationship with your workers and actually treating each other in a manner that they listen to each other and are mutually respectful,” she said. One example of measures towards reaching that condition, she said was that companies were now doing a lot of training on labor rights awareness among their management staff.
The lack of this behavioral change in corporations, she added, explained the disconnect between the continuing reported cases of human rights violations in the labor sector despite corporation believing that they had done all that was required from them to better assure labor rights protection.
Surina Ismail, head of sustainability IOI Corporation Berhad cultivates and processes oil palm and rubber, said that in her company, “we try to make sure that our workers have their own representation within what we call the employee consultative council so that they can voice their discomfort or whatever issues they have.”
But Kapoor said that while a lot of the efforts that companies were taking, was to try to have consultation groups, “that is not working because at the end of the day one of the other elephants in the room is the way in which foreign workers are considered, not only in the Malaysian context but also in the context of many companies, they are treated as foreign workers. Only as foreign workers, not always as human beings.”
She said that consultation was great but she called on companies to help their workers to have access to independent services outside of the company where they were working in, with which they might feel more comfortable and secure to unload their grievance. They included their embassies and consulates, phone lines, help lines and even their unions at their home country.
“These are the kind of services that workers need to have access to, outside of the companies that they are working for,” Kapoor said.
Ismail said that IOI was addressing one of the main issue behind the problems faced by many workers once they start working in foreign countries, in foreign environments and cultures — their recruitment overseas. Joseph added that both sending and receiving countries have very corrupt practices in this regard and that “middleman, middlewomen, agencies can put in their hands and try some tricks” on the applicants.
IOI, she said also has set up policies for the recruitment of migrant workers that were aimed at making sure that not only the applicants had no fee whatsoever to pay in order to get recruited, that they understood what type of work and environment they were going to face in Malaysia, and that they fully understood the terms of their contracts.
These efforts that were hoped to minimize the problems the migrant workers would have once they worked in Malaysia, were mostly done in their country of origin by representatives of their own country in their own language.
For Kapoor, one of the main recommendations after conducting the Embode study was to make sure that the workers themselves were better consulted.
“It is one of the elephants in the room really, we are all talking about migrant workers but how often do we actually talk to migrant workers themselves, how often are they consulted. Even in public media we often see articles about migrant workers situations but we hardly ever see, I mean in the Malaysian context, real consultation of workers.