By Jackie Bong-Wright

Double Standard in Malaysia

“There are 2 million documented and 1.5 million undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia.  The Malaysian Employment Act of 1955, section 17, allows all employed workers, including legal migrant workers, to join a union.  Furthermore, all foreign workers would be equally treated in accordance with the provisions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention. Trade Unions here enroll them and give them assistance and benefits.  It’s public knowledge, yet, migrant workers are not allowed to join unions, so exploitation and ill-treatment occur frequently.”

So said Mr. G. Rajasekaran, Secretary General of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress, established in 1951, at the second General Forum of the Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers (CPVW) held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on December 28, 2009.

He continued, “Employers team up with employment agencies to pay local authorities at the Immigration Office to prohibit guest workers from belonging to any union when issuing them work permits.  It’s a double standard with both the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Immigration within the same government.  The power rests with private corporations and investors, in conflict with our national law.  A few newspapers have raised these issues, but to no avail.”

Due to robust economic growth during the last decade in Malaysia, the labor force has increased rapidly, with a high demand for all types of workers, especially skilled labor in the manufacturing sector and well-trained professionals in the service sector.  Higher wages and better working conditions attract large numbers of temporary workers from neighboring Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.  They work in the low-skill and low-wage construction, service and agricultural sectors.

Mr. Rajasekaran was invited by the Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers (CPVW), founded in 2006 in Warsaw, Poland, by Mr. Tran Ngoc Thanh, a dissident and former Vietnamese Communist cadre who was sent by his government to study and work there.  Made aware by the Polish Solidarity Movement of the civil rights that each worker enjoys in a free country, Mr. Thanh chose to remain and work in Warsaw.  A group of like-minded activists teamed up with him to found CPVW, which aims to protect Vietnamese workers, both domestic and migrant, not allowed forming labor unions in Vietnam or joining unions in host countries.

Mr. Rajasekaran said that foreign workers, some of whom were present at the Forum, should not sign documents in English without fully understanding the law of the land.  Nor should they sign agreements giving their employers the right to hold their passports for safekeeping.  “Once you go out without documents, you are illegal and are subject to the harsh local laws.”  There are now hundreds of illegal migrants sitting in jail in Malaysia.

No Labor Rights for Migrant Workers in Malaysia

The CPVW board held its founding meeting in Poland in 2006.  For 2009, it chose Malaysia, which imports the highest number of Vietnamese workers (over 130,000).   The group invited labor experts to talk about local labor laws and to suggest ways to help Vietnamese workers.   After Mr. Nguyen Hung Dao from Australia made revisions to the By-Laws, participants, who had come from Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the U.S., elected new Board members, including the author of this article.

Mr. Doan Viet Trung, the CPVW – Australia Secretary General, declared that the Board wanted to mobilize consumers, the media, and governments to pressure employment agencies and trade corporations in Vietnam and overseas to honor their contracts, respecting local and international law.   The Board also recommended that the government of Vietnam allow Vietnam’s 47.4 million-strong work-force to establish independent labor unions.

Pursuing the same goal, Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, Executive Director of Boat People SOS (BPSOS), a Vietnamese American organization based in Virginia, said, “Although Malaysia recently passed an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law (Act 670), Vietnamese guest workers have been exploited without knowing how to defend themselves.”

Last year, Dr. Thang partnered with a local NGO to set up an office in Kuala Lumpur.  They monitored the labor practices of Esquel Malaysia, formerly known as Eastern Garment Mfg. Co., Hong Kong-based clothing giant with 43,000 workers in many countries, including 1.300 Vietnamese in Penang.  These latter were paid less than three dollars fortnightly instead of the $245 per month that they were due.  Dr. Thang said that these Vietnamese workers could not afford food, and survived on rice donated by Malaysian good Samaritans.

Esquel produces 64 million shirts a year for customers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, JC Penny, Marks & Spencer, Brooks Brothers, Nike, Nordstrom, and J. Crew as well as companies in Europe.  BPSOS had to decide how to deal with this giant sweatshop.  In the end, it took Esquel to court and won the case.

Targeting Abusive Companies

Field Director for Southeast Asia for the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), headquartered in Bangkok, also addressed the Forum.  Bent Gehrt recounted how a student activist organization, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), with chapters at over 250 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada, was formed in 1997 and founded the WRC, an overseas entity, in 2000.  The purpose of USAS was to help workers struggle against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.  USAS built a grassroots student movement that challenged corporate power and fought for economic justice.

The WRC, said Gehrt, partners with NGOs, human rights groups, and local labor unions in foreign countries where collegiate apparel is produced.  At present, over 180 universities have affiliated with the WRC by signing onto the Designated Suppliers Program, or DSP, which sources college apparel only from factories that respect workers’ rights to form unions and be paid living wages.  As of 2008, 44 colleges had signed on to the DSP.

Special Problems of Women Workers

Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Bich, CPVW – USA board member, said that the Malaysian government, faced with shortages in the work force, imported female laborers to work in factories and sweatshops, and as domestic helpers in households.  These women are the most abused, even sexually, working long hours without being compensated properly.  Exhausted physically and mentally, they often try to escape, without documents, and are put in detention centers.  Coming out of jail, they are either deported back to their country of origin or stay illegally to work as vendors on the streets or as prostitutes in sex clubs.  Sex trafficking is increasing in Malaysia.

Drawn by their plight, CPVW delegates from Australia, Dr. Cuong Nguyen and Kim Dzung, visited some group homes occupied by women workers in Melaka, a resort city neighboring Kuala Lumpur, to examine them and dispense free medication.

No Independent Labor Unions in Vietnam

Vietnam’s domestic situation also came in for discussion at the Forum.  Tanh Nguyen, a labor union official in South Vietnam before 1975, now residing in Belgium, said that skyrocketing inflation, which hit 25 percent in 2008, has fueled strikes and walkouts against low wages, work overload, poor benefits and harsh disciplinary actions.  Vietnamese workers are not free to form or join independent unions under the Communist regime.  The government-controlled Trade Union Federation of Vietnam is the sole labor organization, and all workers automatically become members of the union in their workplace, including all public sector employees, workers in state-owned enterprises and private sector employees.

All labor union officials are also members of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).  They are selected by the Politburo and local company leaders, not workers.  “Without money or authority, how can labor unions protect workers?” said Nguyen Van Be, Party Secretary of the Tan Thuan Export Processing Zone.  He asserted that many labor officials were paper tigers who did not help workers organize legal strikes or protect their rights, taken away from them by the VCP.

In July, the VCP celebrated the 80th anniversary of the government labor union.  Vietnam became a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and ratified its conventions in 1992.  At its accession to the WTO in 2006, Vietnam promised to conform its labor standards to international best practices, but despite some strides, Vietnam has fallen short in reaching these international standards.

According to Amnesty International (Lead a Union, Go To Prison), Vietnam does not allow independent trade unions, and peaceful dissenting activists face imprisonment, surveillance and harassment.  It reported that in 2007, Tran Quoc Hien, a spokesperson for the United Workers-Farmers Organization, was arrested for posting “distorted” articles on the internet, defending the rights of workers and asking for increases in wages and benefits.  He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and two years’ probation.  Many other dissidents have been imprisoned or fled the country, fearing for their lives.

Labor unions in Vietnam face challenges on mechanisms of cooperation between the state and the private sector, safety and security in the work place, and social security reforms, including cases of unemployment, accidents, and retirement, said Hung Dinh Nguyen, Transport Workers’ Union of Australia, New South Wales Branch, also a CPVW board member.

Notwithstanding political pressure and harassment from the government of Vietnam, a new independent organization, The Viet Labor Movement (VLM), was born in early 2010 in Vietnam, marking a new era of struggle for workers’ rights, including regional and international cooperation and integration in the year of the Tiger.