The Global State of Workers' Rights - Malaysia

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Workers in Malaysia are protected by the Employment Act of 1955, the Workmen's Compensation Act of 1952, and the Weekly Holidays Act of 1950. These measures deal with protection against unlawful termination, withholding of wages, and mandatory days off. Trade unions and labor disputes are covered by the Trade Unions Act of 1959 and the Industrial Relations Act of 1967.

Trade unions are weak in Malaysia, with about 800,000 members representing 7 percent of the workforce. The Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC), the country's union umbrella body, is officially recognized, but it has been unsuccessful in pushing the government to improve conditions for unions and workers. Both the Trade Unions Act and the Industrial Relations Act give the director general for industrial relations considerable power and weaken the MTUC.

Strikes can be called after permission from the government is sought through a cumbersome procedure that includes a two-thirds vote in a secret ballot by the union membership. The process can be further delayed if the director general for industrial relations decides to present the case to the Industrial Court. Unsanctioned strikes, even if peaceful, are considered illegal.

Malaysia relies heavily on foreign workers; 20 percent of the country's roughly 10 million workers are documented foreigners. Such migrant workers have very few rights. The MTUC estimates that there are another one to two million undocumented migrant workers in the country who have no protection against unfair treatment by employers. In 2008, a news program exposed the deplorable living conditions of migrant workers whose squalid lodgings were provided by sporting goods manufacturer Nike and its local partner Hytex.

An estimated 300,000 migrant workers are employed as servants in Malaysian households, with almost 90 percent coming from Indonesia. Reports of abuse of these workers are common, ranging from verbal abuse to beatings, scalding with boiling water or hot irons, rape, and even murder. According to a local newspaper report, nearly 1,000 household workers flee from abusive employers each year.

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