7 Aug 2020 Ferado

Nearly 600 Nepali workers in Malaysia to get refunds for their recruitment fees

Malaysia’s leading gloves maker has agreed to compensate nearly 1,600 of its foreign workers.

Nearly 600 Nepali workers in Malaysia to get refunds for their recruitment fees

KATHMANDU: Like tens of thousands of Nepali migrant workers who go on foreign employment every year, Kafle, who wanted to be identified only by his surname, paid a huge sum of money to a recruiting agency in the country for a job in Malaysia in 2012.

For a job in WRP Asia Pacific, a leading gloves maker, Kafle paid Rs60,000.“For years, Nepali workers have been paying Rs100,000-Rs150,000 for Malaysian jobs,” Kafle told the Post over the phone from Malaysia. “I also had to pay for the job for which I had to take a loan.”Now, in an interesting turn of events, Kafle and hundreds of other Nepali workers stand to get reimbursement of the money they had spent to secure jobs in WRP. In a rare instance in the foreign employment sector, the Malaysian company has agreed to return the amount the foreign workers had paid to get jobs there.“This feels so unreal that workers like me are getting paid back for the expenses we had paid for our jobs,” said Kafle, who hails from Dhankuta. “No one had ever thought that we would ever receive the money. Every single worker is happy with the decision.”As part of the WRP’s recruitment fee remediation program, nearly 1,600 of its workers would be benefitted from the reimbursement package, a local media reported.

The move will also provide respite to nearly 600 Nepali workers employed by WRP Asia Pacific. These migrant workers will be paid on a quarterly basis with each worker expected to receive a total payout ranging from Malaysian Ringgit (RM)4,547 to RM16,054 over the period of the next 30 months. The workers’ reimbursement will be cleared in 11 installments, which will be deposited in the workers’ bank account with their monthly salary, according to the contract document, obtained by the Post. According to Kafle, a Nepali worker would be getting (RM)4,547, which is equivalent to Rs128,063.“Every Nepali worker, irrespective of when they came and how much they paid for the job, are getting the same amount,” said Kafle. “In the first month we will receive RM 114, then the amount will be raised to around RM200.”Kafle added the good thing about this scheme was that even those workers who have already left for Nepal after February 31 or planning to leave in the near future will also be reimbursed.“They [the employer] have collected all the documents, including bank details, so that they can deposit the amount,” said Kafle. “Whether Nepali or Bengali, everyone is happy with this news.”Aspiring migrant workers from labour sending countries in South Asia like Nepal have to pay exorbitant fees to local sub-agents and recruiting agencies for overseas jobs. Despite strict efforts from both governments—labour sending and labour receiving countries, migrant workers have been forced to pay hefty amounts for foreign jobs which should otherwise be free. To pay high fees for overseas jobs, workers often have to take loans. And once they reach their labour destinations, they are caught in a struggle to pay back the loans; for some, making it difficult to escape from the vicious cycle of labour migration.

“Recruitment fees and related costs keep poor migrant workers in debt bondage and hence at high risk of forced labor,” said Andy Hall, a Kathmandu-based migrant worker rights specialist working in South and South-East Asia. “This is because workers are forced to take out high-interest loans from local money lenders and sell property or possessions to ensure the payments needed to be recruited in the first place.”Such conditions further force them to continue working for the company, however unrewarding a job maybe, because of debt bondage, according to Hall. Many workers are also forced to work for their employers as their passports are confiscated, he added. The WRP’s decision to compensate its foreign workers has come after the United States’ Customs and Border Protection (CBP) imposed a ban on the company’s exports to the US last September over forced labour charges. The Guardian investigation, in 2018, had revealed that at least two Malaysian companies—Top Glove and WRP–were subjecting thousands of migrant workers from Nepal and Bangladesh to exploitative working conditions and their products were part of forced labour.The WRP had then agreed to meet conditions set by the CBP to continue its exports to the US. According to Free Malaysia Today, an online news portal, the ban was lifted in March after the company assured the CBP that it was no longer producing its rubber gloves under forced labour conditions.The Southeast Asian country, which remains a major labour destination for Nepali migrants, produces two-thirds of global consumption of rubber gloves. The ongoing pandemic has seen skyrocketing of demand for gloves from Malaysian manufactures, creating new billionaires in Malaysia.“A majority of Malaysia glove factories’ workforce come from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Indonesian and Myanmar,” said Hall. “For such challenging and unrewarding jobs, they have paid recruitment fees and other related costs, which go up to $5,000 per worker.”As per the International Labour Organisation’s fair and responsible recruitment standards, a migrant worker should be relieved of any such fees and other financial and workplace abuses, leading to forced labour and human trafficking.Hall called the WRP’s remediation programme a breakthrough.

“The WRP agreeing to pay back workers, who invested a huge sum for jobs, must be a stepping stone to systemic change. It has become the first gloves manufacturer in Malaysia to provide repayment of past worker recruitment fees and related costs,” said Hall. “Whilst this is a welcome step, the CBP’s approach to WRP is still discriminatory and non-transparent.”According to Hall, forced labor remains widespread across the whole Malaysian rubber gloves industry and other companies have also shown terrible mistreatment of foreign workers.“The high-risk situation of forced labor amongst migrant workers in the Malaysian gloves industry can only be addressed once and for all after the employers fully reimburse past recruitment fees and related costs,” said Hall. “Furthermore, ethical recruitment practices or zero cost recruitment policies should be strictly enforced when these companies plan to hire more foreign workers in the future.”The Employer’s Pay Model or Zero Cost policy also stresses on making the employer responsible cover all the expenses on behalf of a worker for protecting vulnerable migrant workers from possible exploitations.

Nepal and Malaysia have signed a pact to provide zero cost jobs to Nepali workers. However, nothing much has changed for poor Nepali migrant workers as they continue to face exploitation. Kafle and his fellow workers are overjoyed by the news of getting their money back, although it is a long wait of 30 months till they are fully reimbursed.“I got this news when I was planning to go back but I could not due to other reasons. Who will not be happy with such a decision?” said Kafle. “We will get the money sooner or later. But who would have thought that the money once we paid to sub-agents and recruiting agencies would come back to us in a foreign country? This seems like a godsend.” 

7 Aug 2020 Ferado

Bangladesh university turning women garment workers into leaders

The special program aims to inspire female workers to become leaders and boost women’s rights across industries.1 Aug 2020

Garment workers return after work as factories reopen amid concerns over a coronavirus outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]
Garment workers return after work as factories reopen amid concerns over a coronavirus outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

STORIES RELATED TO 

  • as working 12-hour shifts in a garment factory as the main earner for her family in Bangladesh.

Today, the 23-year-old is one of the first graduates of a special university programme that aims to inspire female workers to become leaders and boost women’s rights across industries.

Begum now interns for the United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) and hopes to use her economics degree to launch a project to improve the lives of the children of Bangladeshi textile workers by addressing a lack of schooling and childcare.

“I am an example of how education can change a person,” said Begum, one of four former garment workers to graduate from the Pathways for Promise course at the Asian University for Women (AUW) – based in the southeastern port city of Chittagong.

“Garment workers are the reason why Bangladesh’s economy is doing well,” she added. “Their children deserve better.”

About 470 disadvantaged women including tea pickers and refugees have enrolled for the free degree programme since it started in 2016, and receive a monthly stipend while they study.

Dozens of ex-textile workers are part of the cohort and the AUW’s vice chancellor, Nirmala Rao, said the university was involved in creating internships to tackle a “dearth of female middle and senior managers” in Bangladesh’s garment industry.

Bangladesh economy: Tens of thousands of people left jobless (2:17)

While up to 80 percent of garment workers are women in largely junior positions such as seamstresses, the majority of senior management positions are taken by men, UN data shows.

Rubana Huq, who heads the nation’s largest trade association for garment manufacturers and was also involved in designing the academic course, said seeing the graduates take on management positions in the sector would inspire other women to dream big.

“They have different exposure and their outlooks are very fresh,” Huq told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “They will be able to contribute to how we look at female empowerment.”

Workers’ rights at risk

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest supplier of clothes to Western countries after China, and relies on the garment industry for more than 80 percent of exports and four million jobs.

But the sector has been rocked in recent years – first by the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse on the outskirts of Dhaka that killed 1,136 workers, then by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The 2013 disaster sparked efforts to improve labour rights and conditions but the coronavirus outbreak led to thousands of garment workers being laid off in recent months as Western fashion brands cancelled orders due to global store closures.

As workers push for overdue wages and the jobless seek to find work, the AUW graduates want to help steady the sector and push for change by rising through the ranks of management.

“I want to see everyone with the same eye, it doesn’t matter what category someone’s working in,” said former factory packer Yesmin Akther. “I want people to behave well towards workers.”

A recent report by a United States’s Senate committee found Bangladesh was backsliding on garment workers’ rights. Union leaders faced intimidation, hampering their ability to investigate claims of threats and abuse – mainly from female workers – the report said.

Factory owners dismissed the findings of the report as inaccurate while local researchers said verbal abuse of workers was more prevalent across smaller factories and subcontractors.

Students from across Asia, Middle East

The university, funded by donors including the IKEA Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has female students from across Asia and the Middle East pursuing degrees in subjects such as public health, philosophy and politics.

The students from the garment sector receive full pay – worth about $100 a month – from their employers while studying.

This proves vital as their families rely on the income, according to the AUW, which said it had persuaded several factory owners to back the initiative and allow some of their brightest female workers to leave the workplace for five years.

The former textile workers, who had to pass a rigorous entrance exam for a place on their courses, said adapting to academic life was challenging as was improving their English.

7 Aug 2020 Ferado

Rights of 3,000 workers threatened, Pakistani union files complaint vs hydropower project

BWI and the Pakistan Federation of Building and Wood Workers (PFBWW) filed a joint complaint to the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) on 6 July citing gross violation of workers’ rights of 3,000 workers at the IFC-supported Karot Hydropower Project in Pakistan. 

PFBWW, which has a registered site-level union at the hydropower project, said that the worksite is undermining ILO Core Labour Standards. It said that the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are threatened. In particular, their complaint listed specific violations of IFC’s own performance standards (2 and 4) on workers’ organizations, health and safety, working conditions and terms of employment, grievance mechanisms, retrenchment, and concerns related to the use of security forces. The union also pointed to cases of union busting, illegal dismissals and underpayment of wages and benefits. It also raised its serious concerns over the health and safety of workers which it said has worsened due to COVID-19.

PFBWW General Secretary Aslam Adil expressed optimism with the complaint it filed before the 

IFC. “We have been actively organising mega-infrastructure projects in Pakistan and consistently raising and addressing workers’ issues by engaging the management, strengthening our site-level union, dialogues and judicial interventions. With this complaint, we sincerely hope that workers’ and trade union rights will be fully recognised and respected at the Karot Hydropower Project,” Adil said.  

The Karot Hydro Power project is constructing a 720 MW run-of-the-river hydro-power plant, including a 95.5 m high dam and a 27 km long reservoir on the Jhelum River. Karot is owned mainly by the China Three Gorges South Asia Investment Limited (CSAIL), which was established by the China Three Gorges Corporation (CTGC). At the time of the lease’s signing, Karot Hydro was IFC’s largest hydroelectric power project and represented its first major collaboration with the China Export Import Bank, China Development Bank, and Silk Road Fund. The IFC is a member of the World Bank Group.   

7 Aug 2020 Ferado

Turkey: Women workers dismissed from SF Trade for union organizing

In 2019, workers at SF Trade, which supplies global brands with textile and leather goods, started an organising campaign. They wanted overtime pay, to work without excessive production pressure and to be respected. They chose Deriteks union to represent them. The management, which has a serious union-busting record, dismissed two women who led the organising campaign on 29 October 2019. Women started picketing in front of the factory. SF management dismissed two more women and continues to threaten workers with dismissals. The company sued for damages, accusing workers of undermining competitiveness. The management attacks workers’ right to organise and is hostile to every organising campaign. The company practised similar anti-union tactics in 2015 and the union reached a victory with international solidarity. You can support these courageous women in their struggle by sending a message to the SF Trade company management.
7 Aug 2020 Ferado

Factories supplying major UK clothing outlets are engaged in ‘union busting’

Thousands of trade union activists have been targeted at factories supplying the likes of H&M, Zara and Primark, according to a new report.

Pictured: A garment factory in Bangladesh (ILO)

Factories in Asia supplying major brands like Zara, Primark and H&M have been accused of using the Covid-19 pandemic to crackdown on trade unions.

A new report from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) argues that brands aren’t stepping up to help workers in their supply chains, despite pledging to respect trade union rights.  

Workers who belong to a union and have organised for safer working conditions amid fears of infection have been targeted for dismissal, the charity says.

The researchers look at nine cases of alleged union busting in garment factories in India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar, supplying nine global fashion brands – many of which trade in the UK.  

The nine cases involve nearly 5,000 garment workers in Asia who belong to unions.  

Cases include an H&M supplier sacking all 1,200 workers at a unionised factory in India, and a supplier for Zara and MANGO in Myanmar sacking 500 union members just hours after union leaders requested better Covid-19 protections. Factories blame the dismissals on the Covid-19’s impact on orders, but union members were targeted – sometimes just hours after calling for better health and safety protections, and in two cases factories hired non-unionised workers soon after, BHRRC says.

There are ‘unresolved cases’ of alleged union busting at factories supplying brands including H&M, Zara and Primark. The firms insist they respect and uphold trade union rights, and that issues are being investigated and resolved.

It follows the recent scandal at factories supplying clothing brand Boohoo, with Labour Behind the Label showing that plants in Leicester remained open throughout the Covid-19 pandemic – despite the high risk of infection for workers and lockdown regulations.

Cases unearthed in the new report include: 

  • A supplier in India making clothes for H&M sacked all 1,200 garment workers at a unionised factory in June, citing lack of orders amid Covid-19. The supplier’s 20 other units reportedly remained open. Workers and unions claim the closed factory was the supplier’s only one with unions and was targeted for this reason.  
  • Three factories owned by the Windy Group in Bangladesh, which supplies Inditex (which owns Zara) and H&M, sacked 3,000 workers. The workers say the dismissals are linked to their union activism, and protests continue. 
  • 107 garment workers in Myanmar making clothes for firms including Inditex (Zara) and Primark were sacked three days after they registered a new union.

Thousands of garment workers in Asia are waiting for six major cases to be resolved, the human rights monitoring centre says.

In their responses to the mass sackings in Bangladesh, both H&M and Inditex (Zara) said the dismissals at the factories had been made due to the economic impacts of Covid-19. The brands indicated that agreements had been reached between the three factories and local unions, and workers have been compensated in line with local labour law through digital payment on 3 and 4 June. However, workers are still demanding reinstatement.

Primark said an investigation was underway at the Myanmar-based Huabo Times factory, including dialogue with both the union and the supplier. The company said that if a breach is identified it would work with the supplier on remediation.

Responding to three union members being dismissed at an outsourced factory in Cambodia, H&M said it was engaged in dialogue with all parties involved, including the supplier, unions and other brands.

In response to BHRRC regarding dismissals at another factory Myanmar, Inditex (Zara) and MANGO said they had engaged in mediation with the factory and reported that the dispute had been resolved. However, labour groups remain concerned that the brands have not pushed for reinstatement of all sacked trade unionists.

“The bosses used COVID as an opportunity to get rid of us because they hated our union… They thought we caused them constant headaches by fighting for our rights and those of our fellow workers,” said Maung Moe, union president at the Myanmar factory.

Cases profiled in the report are just ‘the tip of the iceberg’, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has warned.  

Thulsi Narayanasamy, Senior Labour Rights Lead at BHRRC, said: “Covid-19 has already been used as an excuse by fashion brands to act against the interests of the most vulnerable workers by cancelling orders and leaving suppliers in the lurch. Now workers face a brutal crackdown when exercising their most fundamental rights. Brands aren’t stepping up enough to ensure workers in their supply chains are protected…

“These threats send a powerful message to other workers on the real cost of exercising their fundamental freedoms.

“Fashion brands are aware that this is happening, and they must step up and take responsibility for workers by ensuring that these cases are resolved swiftly and fairly, and by changing their own practices that enable union suppression in supply chains.”

A spokesperson from the Clean Clothes Campaign said: “[Union] agreements should be supported by brands’ ongoing orders in the factories. Without this commitment, brands are failing in their due diligence… reducing such statements to nothing more than empty CSR rhetoric.

“Brands and retailers need to request that all suppliers develop clear policies to ensure that Covid-19 is not used as a cover for union busting.”

The ITUC has reported a global crackdown on trade unions, with at least 53 countries restricting human and labour rights during the COVID-19 pandemic and local unions report many other cases. 

Read the report here.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor at Left Foot Forward.

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