“Forced labour can’t be eradicated without recognition of the value of labour”

THERE is much ado about nothing about the phenomenon of forced labour in the country. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines forced labour as labour extracted from any person under conditions of menace of penalty and not voluntarily.

Globally, it is estimated that there are 25 million workers under forced labour.

It is a serious problem in Malaysia particularly in the manufacturing and plantation sectors. This is because of the use of forced labour that the US has prevented Malaysian goods from entering its market. 

Some of the Malaysian government-linked companies (GLCs) involved in plantation production were blacklisted by the US Customs Department. 

Forced labour is a serious problem for the Malaysian government.

Recently, Human Resources Minister V. Sivakumar launched guidelines to prevent and eradicate forced labour in the country. The Malaysian government adheres to the directive issued by the ILO on the 11 indicators of forced labour: abuse of vulnerable workers, deception, restriction of movement, isolation, physical and sexual abuse, intimidation and threats, retention of identity documents, withholding wages, debt bondage, abuse of working and living conditions and excessive overtime. 

To date, Human Resources Ministry has opened up 1321 investigation papers involving 272 employers. Since Malaysia has signed the ILO Convention on Forced Labour, forced labour has to be taken seriously in terms of its reduction in the country.

However, the government is naive in saying that it wants to eradicate forced labour without understanding the epistemological basis of forced labour. Forced labour is not an aberration but a phenomenon that results from the non-implementation of laws and regulations.

This is a very superficial view of forced labour because this phenomenon exists due to the uneven development of the economy. In other words, forced labour exists not because of a lack of enforcement measures but because of the nature of the economy.

Since particular sectors of the economy are very much based on cheap and amenable labour, forced labour seems to be structurally conditioned by the economy. 

Take the plantation sector, for example. Historically, production on the plantations was predicated on the use of cheap and malleable labour. Things might have changed over the years, but without low wages and depressing working conditions, it would be difficult to reap handsome and super profits on the plantations.

Forced labour is not an accident but a condition of the economy that pays little or no attention to the use value of labour.

If labour is just regarded as a cog in the machine, then its value might not be appreciated. If the use value of labour is not appreciated in the production process due to the production of low-quality products, then labour will not be appreciated and rewarded for its value.

It is only when a country’s labour process is in tandem with the production of high-quality products that labour is appreciated for its value and contribution.

Thus, conditions of forced labour might be reduced when employers pay attention to the value and dignity of labour. ILO guidelines on reducing the presence of forced labour are important. Governments must take enforcement measures where possible to reduce the phenomenon of forced labour. 

However, these enforcement measures are basically superficial in nature. They don’t address the core issues surrounding forced labour, why it exists, or what needs to be done to move away from the phenomenon.

The existence or non-existence of forced labour is very much caught up in the larger trajectory of development. The move away from low-cost production to production based on the recognition of the use value of labour is the key to eradicating forced labour in the long run. – Sept 16, 2023



Prof Ramasamy Palanisamy is the former DAP state assemblyman for Perai. He is also the former deputy chief minister II of Penang.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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