2024 March 25

Migrant workers in Malaysia: worker-driven monitoring snapshots

A team from Electronics Watch visited Malaysia in late January 2024 to meet migrant workers and learn more about the workplace issues they are facing, including union busting, recruitment fees, low wages and poor health and safety. Engaging local trade union representatives was another goal of the trip, to look at how we can combine efforts to tackle rights violations and prevent harm to workers.

Migrant workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and Myanmar travel far from home with the hope of earning decent incomes in the factories of Malaysia. With the help of our monitoring partner, Tenaganita, Electronics Watch had a chance to meet several different groups of migrant workers on this trip and hear their grievances, including the precarity of their work, discrimination, and the health issues they face.

The first group of workers were Indonesian, and the Electronics Watch delegation met them at a cafe on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Over a simple meal, they talked about their lack of basic social protections, including access to medical care, despite the health concerns they raised: some were being directly exposed to processing chemicals, which the women suspect is responsible for disrupting their menstrual cycles. Women are also worried about their safety when making their way to and from work late at night for night shifts. The Electronics Watch team and Tenaganita listened to these concerns and provided information about their rights. The team also explained how we can use our affiliates' buying power to help improve working conditions.

Migrant workers in Malaysia also endure hardship in their living conditions: the Electronics Watch team visited a hostel in Penang where 28 workers share a single dormitory with just two bathrooms between them. It is accessed via steep, unsafe stairs, with cooking facilities where workers regularly report rats.

In a nearby coffee shop, workers on the day and night shifts told our team about the exorbitant fees they had to pay in their home countries to be hired, and the way their union organising efforts are being undermined. One of the workers there had been burned by a chemical spill just the day before, emphasising the urgency of efforts to improve health and safety.

Excessive overtime can exacerbate these health and safety issues. Employed on short-term contracts with low wages, and needing to send remittances back home, migrant workers often work a huge number of overtime hours to maximise their income while they can. Many actively seek out overtime to increase their earnings and try to work as many hours as possible, despite the impact on their mental and physical health. Some workers told us they are so exhausted that they fall asleep at work.

Punishing production schedules drive the need for overtime work. The workers are under immense pressure from the moment they clock in, with every minute accounted for and bathroom access and meal breaks so severely limited the workers found it humiliating.

Workers must be able to organise and form trade unions to negotiate for better pay and conditions, but are often afraid of losing their jobs if they do so. And not without cause: workers' leaders who spoke up about working conditions were punished by refusing to allow the overtime hours that make up a significant proportion of their salary. Precarious work and renewable fixed-term contracts are a further barrier to forming unions, as workers do not see the long-term interest in taking action to improve conditions.

Despite these difficult conditions, which are compounded by weak labour laws, unions in Malaysia are still tackling rights violations. Unions play a crucial role in driving change for workers: that's why one of the six goals in the new Electronics Watch Strategic Plan is for workers to exercise their right to organise and access remedy, with support from public buyers. Freedom of association and collective bargaining are enabling rights that unlock access to other rights, and we will continue to support global supply chain workers in their efforts to form unions.