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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 26, 2022 - January 1, 2023

Corporate leaders and fund managers have a love-hate relationship with human rights activist Andy Hall. He is a whistleblower who exposed forced labour issues in public-listed companies, which arguably resulted in better worker welfare and business sustainability. He is also deemed a market disruptor, as the share price of the companies he campaigned against fell on the back of a slew of negative news reports. 

The incident that caught the most public attention was his campaign against ATA IMS Bhd, an electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider. It was reported in May last year that Hall had filed a petition to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to investigate the company and provided what he claimed was information on alleged forced labour conditions. 

In November last year, ATA IMS confirmed that it received notices of termination from Dyson Operations Pte Ltd and Dyson Manufacturing Sdn Bhd, its key customers, which took effect in June this year. As at Dec 5, the company’s share price had plummeted to 25 sen per share from its peak of RM3.37 last April. 

Some sceptics question if Hall has an ulterior motive to benefit himself, such as taking on consultancy contracts from the companies he campaigns against, and going silent on the companies that engage him for advice. Others accuse him of imposing labour standards in developed nations on emerging countries, which is not fair. 

In a phone interview with ESG, Hall acknowledges that Malaysian corporates have varying views on him and respond differently to his complaints and queries regarding labour issues. 

“I always approach the companies first. And they respond in different ways. Some of them welcomed me, like Sime Darby [Plantation] and others I’ve advised. They approached me and thanked me for bringing it to their attention. They agreed with me, acknowledged it’s a problem and asked if I could help them fix it. I’m very positive and open. And, of course, I would always support them to do that. Other companies would just completely ignore what I said, and some would defend themselves and get aggressive,” he says.

“If my engagement with the company is not successful, then I would escalate it to industry groups, [product] buyers, investors and the international community.”

Hall says he has never done paid consultancy work for companies that he campaigned against, including Top Glove Corp Bhd and VS Industry Bhd, an EMS provider that he recently ended his engagement with.

“[The allegation] is not true at all. There are no hard and fast rules on not working for companies I campaign against. But until today, that’s always been the case for many reasons. I engage any and all companies as per the situation. [After all], the issue is whether I’m paid or not for it, right?” 

Hall also refutes the allegation that he went dark on companies that engaged him to improve their labour practices, such as Top Glove. “Nonsense. Top Glove never engaged me for my services. It’s not true at all. And I continue to be a very vocal critic of the company until today,” he says.

“The only difference is that when I became a critical friend to Top Glove and was assigned as a ‘voluntary and independent adviser’ to their sinking fund, I had other channels to raise complaints, which didn’t require me to go public every time and share the communications and engagement that was happening [between both parties].”

Hall also disagrees with the view that he is imposing labour standards in developed nations on emerging countries like Malaysia. He uses international standards that should be applied to all countries around the world, he says. 

“All my work focuses on the global supply chain. It’s one global standard, such as the ILO (International Labour Organization) indicators on forced labour and other international standards upon which companies are audited in Malaysia. Most of these standards apply to everybody, and there’s no reason to distinguish Malaysia from the US, the UK or Canada.”

All my work focuses on the global supply chain. It’s one global standard, such as the ILO (International Labour Organization) indicators on forced labour … Most of these standards apply to everybody, and there’s no reason to distinguish Malaysia from the US, the UK or Canada. — Hall

‘Many companies don’t practise what they claim’

Based on his personal experience, Hall says many companies in Malaysia and globally do not practise what they claim on paper. 

“They claim to be respecting all these things [such as workers’ rights] with CSR (corporate social responsibility) policies in place. It is not true [in many cases]. Most of the time, they just exist. They claim to not practise forced labour, discrimination and have good governance, but it’s just on paper.” 

As an activist, his job is to make sure companies do what they claim to be doing, adds Hall.

The most serious issue that foreign labourers in Malaysia face is debt bondage, which involves recruitment fees that they are required to pay to secure a job in Malaysia. The fee used to go up to as high as between US$5,000 and US$6,000 in Bangladesh. In Nepal, it used to go as high as US$1,000 or more, and he alleges that it has gone up again recently. 

“The problem starts during recruitment. Workers coming into Malaysia are heavily in debt and have to pay interest on the loan they take [to pay for recruitment fee], which means their life could be an absolute hell,” he says.

“If they have a good job with decent income, they can pay it off within a year or a few years. But if they have problems with their employment, like some cases in the construction sector or the more informal sectors, and have some problems with their incomes, they can really get themselves in a difficult situation.”

While some say that most recruitment fees are paid to agents or middlemen in the source countries, Hall says that is a misunderstanding. 

The reality is that some of the money collected is also being paid as bribes and kickbacks to intermediaries in Malaysia, he says.

With the unity government formed after the recent general election, Hall hopes the newly sworn-in cabinet can tackle the issue of recruitment fees by introducing new policies and regulations. 

“For instance, there is a regulation in Thailand that says foreign workers shouldn’t pay for recruitment costs. If there is something that the Malaysian government can take immediate action, this should be it,” says Hall. 

In the bigger picture, Hall says the Malaysian government should have a migration policy in place that takes care of the economic and health security of the foreign labourers. It also needs to have a governance system in place to prevent corruption. 

“Really, the PM (prime minister) should be the one taking responsibility for the migration policies and issues of foreign labour. It shouldn’t be limited to just the home affairs and human resource ministries. There should be a central government approach whereby the PM comes out with a migration policy and implements that.” 

Moving forward, Hall will continue to investigate labour issues, focusing on the timber and furniture industries, alongside the electronics, palm oil and glove sectors. “I’m also focusing on the UK seasonal workers’ scheme, which is another issue. I focus not just on Malaysia, [but] globally,” he says.

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