This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 31, 2021 - June 6, 2021
ANDY Hall’s name is known among investors and labour-intensive manufacturers, given the publicity he has gained in the past year after alleging mistreatment of migrant workers at glove manufacturers in Malaysia. No doubt, his campaign gained prominence at a time when the spread of Covid-19 within crowded staff quarters made headlines.
While his research has been widely used in the championing of migrant worker rights and by foreign government agencies in their investigations, it has also received its fair share of brickbats from corporates — with some questioning whether he has a “hidden agenda”.
His influence appears to be spreading, judging by the growing number of petitions he has submitted to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), alleging forced labour in the operations of several local manufacturers.
Is he to be feared or embraced by manufacturers as demand for better standards of living and working conditions for workers grows louder from environmental, social and governance (ESG) investors and human rights advocates? Questions have also been raised as to how he funds his work, among others. The Edge spoke to Hall via a telephone conversation and here are excerpts of the interview.
The Edge: Can you explain what you do as a migrant worker rights specialist? Do you focus on specific industries or regions?
Andy Hall: I come from a legal background, as I was trained in law. Nowadays, people call me a migrant worker rights specialist, but essentially I am an activist and researcher. I am also somebody who does occasional consultancy work, and I provide information to investors regularly. In my line of work, I engage governments, unions and civil society, where I focus on migrant worker management issues such as the ethical recruitment of workers and worker housing.
My work is focused particularly in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand as the destination countries for most of the migrant workers in this region, and on Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Myanmar as the host countries for migrant workers — where they come from.
Generally, my work has been focused in Asia — I was based in Thailand for 12 years and in Myanmar for two, and I have been in Nepal for three years. My work is not really specific to any industry. In Thailand, I focused a lot on the seafood, fishing, food processing, electronics and gloves industries. I also looked at the hospitality and furniture industry.
I first came to Malaysia in 2018 to do a mapping exercise for a public procurement non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Europe, looking at forced labour issues in the electronics industry, and that is when I came across the issues in the gloves industry.
How do you conduct your work? Do you work with third parties or do you conduct the investigations by yourself?
When I first came to Malaysia, it was really hard for me because the civil society organisations and the unions in Malaysia did not reach out to the migrant worker communities. When I asked the different NGOs and unions to support me to do the mapping exercise in the electronics industry, they couldn’t help me because they didn’t have the contacts.
So, I got together with networks of remittance agents from Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar who were actually helping workers remit money back to their origin countries, and I went around Malaysia with them to get connections. They introduced me to community organisations and local organisations on the ground, and I built up a good network with them. I also have a team of assistants in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesia who do a lot of worker interviews for me.
During my time in Malaysia, I also built up quite a good network of whistleblowers. These are people working within companies who wanted to talk about [the forced labour] situation in their companies. I also built up a good network of whistleblowers from audit firms. These are third-party or international auditors who were horrified by the situation in the electronics, gloves, automobile and furniture industry that they were auditing, and they would basically share some of their findings with me, as they were concerned that they weren’t able to make a change with their audits.
How do you fund your investigations?
My work in 2018 was funded by the public procurement NGO in Europe, and that is ongoing. Most of the work is done behind the scenes, as we are working with public procurers who are government, tax-funded organisations in Europe. But the rubber gloves work that I did was completely voluntary.
Probably 95% of my work in Malaysia is voluntary; it’s paid for by myself. I have consultancy work with Sime Darby Plantation Bhd, Thailand’s CP Group, and Tesco, and I also have some international private consultancy work. With the money that I get from consulting, I fund a team of researchers in Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal — so it’s completely self-funded and voluntary work.
I am also a special adviser on migrant workers and forced labour to Impactt (a UK-based ethical trade consultancy), working two days a month for them, but that is very much high-level advisory work.
Impactt is a consultant to some of the Malaysian companies at which you have highlighted issues of forced labour. Is there any conflict here?
Impactt has the experience of working with the trade sanctions — for example, with WRP Asia Pacific Sdn Bhd and Top Glove Corp Bhd — but I am not involved in these projects. So, yes, I do work with Impactt, but as a special adviser on very high-level consultancy issues — it is not related. I know there have been some rumours or discussions that somehow or some way I am getting business for Impactt; it is completely untrue.
In that sense, is it correct to say that your role as a ‘critical friend’ to Top Glove has nothing to do with your work in Impactt?
No, nothing at all. Top Glove said to me they wanted to be a leader in the area of ESG issues, and they wanted my support, and I said I was happy to give them the support, because if they are really willing to be a leader, they would be a good role model for Malaysia. So, that’s why I am willing to support them in their work, but it is a completely unpaid position, as a critical friend.
I said [to Top Glove]: ‘You can engage me voluntarily, I don’t want any money. Of course, if I come to Malaysia, you can cover my travel and accommodation expenses, but I don’t want any payment from you, and I will be happy to support you on these issues.’ And that is why I became a critical friend to Top Glove.
Some of these companies have got into trouble with CBP because of these issues that you raised. Do they grudgingly ask for your help?
I think these companies should engage with me, because it benefits [all the stakeholders] — the management of the company, investors, workers — and it is, of course, better for the company’s reputation. They will see that I am a rational person, trying to create rational systems.
For instance, I am working with CBSA. It also has a sanctions regime and will be imposing sanctions on Malaysia very soon. I believe these sanctions regimes should be transparent and predictable; they should be fair and I very much campaign for those issues as well.
Speaking of sanctions, some feel that you have a ‘too familiar’ relationship with CBP. Any comments?
I started engaging with CBP when I was in Malaysia, back in 2018, and that was when it started to increase its resources to do the investigation. Until recently, CBP was the only authority in the world that had power to block goods that were being produced with forced labour. So, it is a unique organisation, and it is only in the US that it has this power. Now, the Canadian authorities also have this power, and I have been engaging with them. ESDC is the main research arm on forced labour issues for the Canadian government; it recommends sanctions to CBSA. I am working closely with both agencies and have been for about one year as they complete their investigations. I also work closely with all the embassies and diplomats in KL, including the Canadians but mostly the US, EU, Swedish, Finnish, Netherlands and UK.
Most of my advocacy at the European level is through my close friend Heidi Hautala MEP (Member of European Parliament), who is vice-president of the European Parliament and chair of its responsible business conduct committee.
I have been very critical of CBP, of its systems; I don’t believe it has rationality. And CBP has rejected some of the submissions that I have put in, on the basis that the goods are not coming into the US. For instance, I’ve done some focus on offshore drilling and other products and it hasn’t accepted all of the complaints that I have put forward because it doesn’t feel the evidence is strong enough to merit an investigation. But it does accept a lot of the complaints.
Most of the information I share is not given to just one party privately, as I share it with a large number of diplomats and trade representatives and with journalists.
There are concerns that some of your actions are driven by trade, in particular the motivation to set up trade barriers. What is your comment on that?
I am not actually somebody who has much knowledge of investors and trade. I am a human rights activist or specialist. Recently, some investors have been giving me some information and background information on the impact of my campaigning, but I am not somebody who really understands these trade or economic or financial issues, to be honest. I don’t have a background in this area.
What would you say is the biggest issue when it comes to migrant workers in Malaysia?
One of the biggest issues is the regularisation of the workers. There are so many illegal workers in Malaysia — illegal in the sense that they either don’t have any documents at all and are completely illegal or are hired by bogus manpower agencies. So, you have this huge workforce of migrant workers in Malaysia who are employed by these bogus employers, and it is a completely abusive and corrupt situation. And the recalibration scheme — Recalibration Plan for Illegal Immigrants (PATI) — is irrational and not helping to address the problem.
Another big issue is Bangladesh and its syndicates, which are terrible, as a worker pays up to US$5,000 (RM20,700) to work in Malaysia. The recruitment fees in Malaysia are four to six times more than what they are in Thailand.
Obviously, there are many things that need fixing when it comes to the issue of migrant workers. What more should the government do?
There is so much of systemic corruption in the country. What we need is for the prime minister to take control of this issue, as the migration policy needs to be dictated by him because it is such an important issue for Malaysia.
You have so many migrant workers, and this needs to be controlled from the top. It cannot be controlled by just the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) because migration has three aspects — national security, economic security and human security.
MoHA focuses on national security, so it is not the agency that should be controlling migration. The prime minister needs to take control of this issue and have a task force at the highest level, whereby migration policy is developed. The whole system of migration policy now is not working and it needs to be taken at the top and coordinated properly in the long term to take into account national, economic and human security issues.
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