Labor rights advocates are warning that an Oct. 1 U.S. ban on imports from a Malaysian rubber glove maker over evidence of forced labor won't be the country's last if employers fail to act quickly to mend conditions for long-suffering migrant workers.
Washington announced the ban on the Malaysian firm WRP Asia Pacific along with products from four other countries because of evidence that they were being made with forced labor. Other companies and commodities include a Chinese apparel maker and gems from Zimbabwe's Marange Diamond Fields.
The importers hit with the U.S. "withhold release orders" can either re-export the shipments that have arrived or prove that they were not made with forced labor to get them through customs.
"Our message here is clear," Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner in U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Trade, told reporters in Washington.
"If you are a trading partner that does not abide by and uphold your commitments to end child or forced labor, the U.S. will do what it takes to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation, safeguard American jobs and create a fair and level playing field for companies and countries that do play by the rules."
Andy Hall, a migrant worker rights specialist, told VOA that forced labor remains "systemic" throughout Malaysia's manufacturing sector. He said he helped with the U.S. probe of WRP and was told by U.S. authorities that several more Malaysian companies in the rubber glove industry and others, more than a dozen in all, were under investigation for possible withhold release orders.
"They're investigating so many cases in Malaysia, and the pressure is on," he said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection told VOA it would respond to a request to confirm that it was investigating other companies in Malaysia but failed to do so by the time of publication.
Drawing on a large natural rubber industry, Malaysia has become the world's top supplier of medical rubber gloves, meeting more than half of global demand, according to the Malaysian Rubber Export Promotion Council. The Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association (MARGMA) says 65% of what its members make heads to the U.S.
WRP alone exported $79.5 million worth of gloves to the U.S. last year. It is the first company in Southeast Asia to face a withhold release order.
Like much of its manufacturing sector, Malaysia's rubber glove industry draws heavily on workers from poorer neighboring countries willing to work for lower wages than most locals. The government claims the country hosts 1.7 million such workers, but the International Labor Organization says the true figure, including many in the country illegally, may reach 4 million — nearly a third of Malaysia's workforce.
Reports of human trafficking and labor abuse among Malaysia's migrant workers have been rife for years. The Guardian newspaper reported on forced labor-tainted rubber gloves made by WRP and another leading local manufacturer, Top Glove, filling the stockrooms of British public hospitals late last year.
Both companies have denied the allegations.
Hall said some factories have made improvements, returning confiscated passports to migrant workers and abiding by the legal limit on overtime hours. At the same time, the labor rights advocate said he has seen few if any curbs on debt bondage, through which migrants take on crippling loans to land a job -- working through agencies, recruiters or others -- and become all but enslaved to their employers to pay them off. He said workers from Bangladesh have been hit hardest, paying up to $5,000 for a job in Malaysia and sometimes committing suicide under the pressure.
Hall said the import ban on WRP was meant to put the rest of the industry on notice.
"What WRP will find now is when they negotiate with U.S. authorities to try to lift the ban, the U.S. authorities will be saying to them, 'But all these workers are in debt bondage, and so the only way that you can get them out of debt bondage and hence out of forced labor is to pay back the money.' And so once WRP realized that, the message will start going through the industry," he said.
K. Veeriah, a secretary division secretary for the Malaysian Trade Union Congress in Malaysia's Penang state, a hub for electronics manufacturers, agreed that debt bondage was still common in factories and that more local companies were at risk of having their exports to the U.S. blocked.
"If they don't mend their ways, they continue on with this scheme of hiring employees who have to pay huge amounts of money to be recruited and then come here and be caught in this whole vicious circle of debt ... I think more employers may have to face the same possibility of a ban," he said.
WRP and Malaysia's Human Resources Ministry did not reply to multiple requests for an interview.
In the wake of the U.S. ban, however, Human Resources Minister Murugeson Kulasegaran has proposed adding a chapter on forced labor to Malaysia's Employment Act to better protect workers, and offered glove makers the government's help in carrying out social compliance audits to international standards, according to local media.
In a statement reacting to the ban, MARGMA said it took international standards "very seriously" and had a plan to meet them, including a compliance committee and seminars for exporters.