Alleged mistreatment by employers have led to riots in Malaysia by foreign workers, various news sources are reporting.

Most serious was what happened on Tuesday night (26 August 2014) in the Malaysian state of Johor. As reported by Malaysian newspaper The Star:

Some 800 workers of a factory here set fire to the building Tuesday night after they had stoned their employers office and burned down a car earlier in the day.

The workers, mostly from Nepal, set the electronics manufacturing plant in the Kelapa Sawit Industrial Area on fire around 8pm.

— The Star, 27 Aug 2014, Striking workers in Kulaijaya torch factory building

kulai_riot_04Other reports suggested that about 1,000 workers were involved. The factory belonged to JCY HDD Technology Sdn Bhd, a stock exchange-listed company with many multinational clients, including Samsung, Hitachi and Western Digital. About 60 percent of its workforce is said to be Nepali.

The protest began at about 8am when some workers began to hurl stones and other objects at the management office and set fire to a car. It escalated in the afternoon when discussions between management and workers fell through, reported the online news site Malaysia Chronicle on 27 Aug 2014 (“Kulai factory riot: Workers claim they were BEATEN if they made mistakes”). Quoting from the Malaysia Chronicle, Kulaijaya Deputy District Police Chief DSP Mohd Idris Samsuri

… said that the second rioting incident sparked at about 4pm when a meeting between workers and management “went out of hand”

He said that the management had only agreed to give workers a day off from work, and not accede to other demands.

According to Malaysian Trade Union Congress Johor secretary K Mohanadas, the workers had complained of lack of access to medical services and poor living and work conditions.

“The workers were dissatisfied as the highlighted grievances were not addressed.

“These include failure to get medical attention, resulting in death in the Tebrau factory (belonging to the same company), poor living conditions, no overtime and alleged beating if they make mistakes at work.

kulai_riot_05“The hostel condition is really bad with up to 35 people in a shophouse,” he said when contacted.

Yesterday, Malaysiakini reported that the violence was sparked when the workers were made to play volleyball using a rock as the ball.

Mohanadas said that workers told him this was punishment for some 20 workers transferred from Tebrau to Kulaijaya.

“The workers also say that the supervisor threw a stone at one of their private parts, sparking the violence,” he said.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress said that they sought a meeting with the company management but was told that managers were too busy to speak to them. MTUC then informed the Malaysian Bar Council which arranged to send a team of lawyers to assist the workers, particularly the 44 men arrested in the wake of Tuesday night’s incident.

Workers throwing stones at a company building

Workers throwing stones at a company building

Earlier incidents

Worker unrest at the plant had been brewing for at least a week. There was an incident at the hostel the previous Thursday, 21 Aug 2014, when about 1,500 employees of the same company staged a strike for more than 36 hours. They were reported by The Star to have flung objects out of their living quarters in protest following the death of a colleague.

They threw out pieces of metal and glass, electronic products, chairs and boots from their four-storey hostel, smashing the glass windows of the guard’s post, while some turned a parked van to its side.

The drama started to unfold on Thursday evening at the hostel which is located a stone’s throw away from the plant in Jalan Firma 3 at the Tebrau IV industrial area here.

According to sources, the workers started the strike to show their dissatisfaction with the factory’s alleged negligence in handling the health issue of a worker who died of chest problems that day.

— The Star, 24 Aug 2014, Nepali workers riot over colleague’s death

kulai_riot_06The management gave a different account to the newspaper. As reported in The Star,

Its executive director Datuk Tan Shih Leng denied that they had neglected the deceased’s initial complaints of chest pains. He said the management had given him medical leave earlier to recover before he died at the hospital.

“The workers were just concerned that the company would not pay out the remaining two years’ salary of their deceased countryman as per his contract. We assured them that the company will pay the salary of any foreigners who works with our company under a three-year contract – even if he were to pass away during that period,” he said.

According to him, factory workers who passed away after exceeding the three-year contract period would get a RM10,000 (S$3,950) compensation on top of insurance claims.

Tan said that the workers had agreed to go back to work during the factory’s 7pm shift on Friday.

— ibid.

The morning of Tuesday, 27 August (i.e. the same day that the workers in Kulai set a factory building alight) another blaze was started by unhappy workers in Kajang, just south of Kuala Lumpur. According to news reports, four workers allegedly set a restaurant ablaze because the owner owed them salaries. There does not seem to be further details of that dispute, nor is this related to JCY HDD Technology.

But, in 2010, JCY was also in the news. Then, over 5,000 foreign workers protested after a similar incident when a Nepalese employee died from a high fever. Workers had alleged that the management was slow in sending the employee to hospital.

Reporters were quick to make the connection between these incidents and Malaysia’s poor record:

Malaysia’s record on treating foreign workers is under scrutiny after the United States State Department downgraded the country in June to Tier 3 in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, triggering potential sanctions.

The report cited widespread problems of forced labour and a lack of enforcement by the authorities as major reasons for the downgrade.

Malaysia’s large electronics, plantation and construction industries rely heavily on unskilled foreign labour from countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The immigrants often arrive in Malaysia heavily in debt after paying high fees to labour agencies and are commonly given substantially lower salaries and even different jobs from the ones they were promised, according to studies by advocacy groups.

Verite, a non-profit organisation that deals with labour issues, says companies commonly withhold workers’ passports and have poor health and safety practices.

— The Rakyat Post, 27 Aug 2014, Cops arrest 42 after Kulaijaya factory riot

Striking JCY workers holding a placard stating their demands

Striking JCY workers holding a placard stating their demands


Situation in Singapore no different

John Gee, TWC2 immediate past president, points out: “Every issue mentioned in [the reports] is one we encounter in our work here. The one difference (apart from the nationality of the workers involved) is that the trade union confederation is supporting the workers!”

Singapore’s Little India riot occurred just nine months ago. While the authorities have determined (Report of the Committee of Inquiry) that the proximate cause of the riot was a tragic traffic accident, contributory factors included intoxication, crowd psychology, misunderstanding of fast-developing events and the intentions of first responders, and cultural tendencies to ‘street justice’ and ‘law of the underdog’.

Since no one from TWC2 was witness to the events of 8 December 2013, we had little to say about the proximate causes of the riot — this was our stand in the days following the events. However, in public comments and our submission to the Committee of Inquiry, TWC2 argued that underlying grievances of foreign workers to their employment and living conditions should not be ignored. If they didn’t contribute to this incident, it is not to say that they won’t contribute to the next.

As events in Malaysia are showing, this is all too possible.

For example, on 10 December 2013, two days after the riot, TWC2 president Russell Heng, in an opinion piece published by the Straits Times, wrote:

It is also well known that when a community harbours an underlying grievance, the threshold for tipping into anti-social acts is lower.

The foreign worker communities here have been at the receiving end of employment unfairness for a long time. Many do not receive correct salaries, or have no way – in the absence of payslips – to check whether they have been correctly paid. Some have not been paid for months; TWC2 sees a regular stream of such complaints.

Other workers have seen their friends injured at work, but denied proper medical treatment by their employers. Yet others have seen their friends repatriated suddenly without receiving full salaries or injury compensation.

But while we can understand there are festering grievances, it is not possible at this stage to say what part these feelings played in the explosion of random violence.

Nonetheless, it would still be good for the authorities to pay more attention to such grievances. Doing so would reduce whatever sense of resentment may exist, and thereby raise the threshold of the tipping point, to better prevent another incident from happening again.

— Opinion piece by TWC2 president Russell Heng in the Straits Times, 10 December 2013

The Committee of Inquiry, in its report (paragraph 147), echoed TWC2’s point:

… while the COI is satisfied that foreign workers’ employment and living conditions were not the cause of this riot, this is not to say that a riot may never occur on this basis. There is no doubt that there are some foreign workers here who face real difficulties in their employment or living situation, especially those employed by errant firms who might withhold their salaries, not maintain the standards of their accommodation, or refuse workers warranted medical leave.