Passport retention is a legacy issue in Malaysia. Awareness that it is an indicator of forced labour is low among many Malaysian businesses. Yet some pioneers in the palm oil industry are starting to buck the trend.
Increased foreign labour
Economic growth has increased Malaysia’s dependence on foreign labour, as many locals move away from blue-collar jobs. About two million registered migrant workers are employed in the country, with many working in labour-intensive jobs such as construction, manufacturing, agriculture and domestic work.
They come to Malaysia from countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nepal in search of better earnings. Many use their years here to save as much as possible to be sent home. Due to the significant initial investment in recruiting migrant workers, many companies retain workers’ passports for safekeeping and to prevent them absconding – which comes with its own set of monetary and administrative challenges.
Passports are also held to facilitate official administrative procedures, such as contract renewal, on behalf of migrant workers in the country. Given the cost of replacing lost passports, workers sometimes consider holding theirs a risk. This is especially evident in the oil palm plantation sector, where shared workers’ accommodation is usually a distance from the place of work. However, passport retention also leaves workers in a vulnerable situation.
As this has been a common practice in Malaysia for decades, awareness that retention of passports is an indicator of forced labour is relatively low. Years of normalisation as a business practice makes the issue a complex one. Since the enactment of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007, change is slowly being observed.
Through engagement, awareness in Malaysia is increasing, especially regarding responsible production demands from international markets. Some pioneers in the palm oil industry are beginning to buck the trend. They are promoting freedom of movement by returning passports and providing workers safe spaces to store them. This video shows the work The Forest Trust (TFT), Wilmar and Kim Loong Palm Oil Mill have done to put passports back in workers’ palms.