Malaysia has been called a “model” that others can follow in their fight against forced labor.
At a Brussels conference, it was stated that the Asian country had taken many “positive” steps towards addressing the problem.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to take further “urgent” action, not only in Europe, in order to make sure that “it gets its house in order”.
Holger Loewendorf (a senior advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels) said that Malaysia can be a regional standard-setting country. This could have ripple effects on other countries in the region.
He said, “The EU has a significant role to play in supporting these efforts.”
The event at the Brussels press club heard that forced labour is a problem that persists worldwide. However, international organizations and many countries, led by the United States, seek to eliminate it through new regulations, due diligence requirements for businesses, trade agreements and additional customs requirements. These requirements align with international norms, such as those approved by the International Labour Organization.
Loewendorf presented the findings of extensive EFD research and acknowledged that implementation and enforcement are still problematic.
He said that this involved a field trip to Malaysia. He cited Malaysia’s palm oil industry as an example to illustrate how a country is trying to meet international standards, and to present itself as a reliable partner.
He spoke at the 13 July event and said that he had spoken with workers, trade unions and other organizations and found a surprising consensus about the problems they face. They are all working together to find solutions.
“Everyone in Malaysia we spoke to takes allegations of forced labor seriously, and this is a marked difference from others in the region.”
Malaysia has 60 laws that prohibit forced labor. He stated that this, along with individual efforts from companies in the palm oil industry, could lead to “drastic improvement.” He also suggested that workers have the legal right to voice grievances regarding forced labour.
He called for a “carrot and stick” approach and said that while no one wants to take on the consequences of import bans, it was important to have workers who are “fragmented and complicated” and work in a sustainable environment.
“This is where the EU plays a major role.”
He said that the EU should also send a message to show it is capable of leading this effort and not rely on others. It can do this by creating more effective regulations that don’t lead to trade bans. That is not what anyone would like.”
He said, “The EU won’t be credible in this, however, unless the EU gets its own house in order.” Either it must address its own forced labor problems or it will be viewed as hypocritical. This means that there are still better regulations to combat forced labor.
He said, “In Malaysia, it is clear that forced labor is a problem and people are taking meaningful measures to address it.” He said that the EU should support these efforts and provide financial support to reliable partners.
He mentioned the $36m the U.S. has committed to fighting forced labor, and added: “I don’t know what the EU does. This needs to be rectified.” It is important that the EU spreads awareness about this issue and develop regional outreach programs.
He also recommended that EU members take a moral leadership role in addressing forced labor problems in EU member countries; that they do not restrict trade or avoid the temptation to protectionism; that there be a distinction between countries that have a history of systemic forced work and countries that recognize and attempt to solve labour issues; that EU partners and funding be used to support labour rights activities within partner countries.
Pieter Cleppe (Vice-President of Libera in Belgium) spoke as well. He warned that the EU could refuse to trade with authoritarian regimes and that it is not about imposing EU standards. However, certain conditions must be met such as due diligence.
He wondered if it was possible to make EU trade agreements more restrictive in order to improve living and working conditions for people affected by forced labor. He asked, “Or should we look at a more efficient strategy?”
He said, “You cannot tolerate slavery labour. All countries should accept that fact. It is not surprising therefore that the Commission has proposed a way to make sure that large companies do not have forced labour in their supply chain.
“The EU has been criticised for failing to do enough with this draft directive. However, it is better to walk before you run. It’s best to take each step one at a time, and not to force you to do so.
He welcomes the inclusion of a clause on civil liability for directors of companies in the directive, but stresses that it is up to the national authorities to implement it.
He also pointed out that some EU trading partners take this issue seriously, while others are less serious.
He said that the European Parliament has demanded a ban on imports from countries guilty of forced labor violations. This is similar to the US, which “is going much further than the EU on this matter” (in the US, an import ban for goods from certain Chinese provinces).
He stated that while the jury is still out about how effective the legislation is, it seemed a good idea at least to try it. Let’s hope the commission takes a measured approach to get the largest companies to reform and eradicate slavery labour.
Paul Vandoren, an ex-EU ambassador to Croatia and Acting EU ambassador for Russia, spoke as well. He stated that the EU should not “impose standards on other countries that it doesn’t always comply with.” This issue also has to do with the EU’s role in the global order. Although the EU wants to be a global player, it is not easy. While the EU advocates a global order based on rules, it is difficult to deliver.
Former EU trade negotiator stated that trade was all about access to markets for goods and services years ago. The big shift has been the demand that human rights be respected in trade agreements. This is a welcome development. I also support the value-based approach to trade with our partners.
We shouldn’t insist that third countries adhere to certain standards if our member states don’t. We must be open and honest about what we do not do ourselves and not demand that others do the same. He said the draft directive on forced labor was “absolutely correct”, and this will increase enforcement and implementation. He said that it is correct that the directive on forced labour includes sanctions for violations.
“Some will be adamant about the EU’s new approach because they believe we interfere in domestic matters. But, overall, cooperation with our trade partners is the best way to move forward.”
The three speakers were asked in a Q&A what concrete action the EU could take to support reforms in Malaysia or increase pressure on China, which is known for being one of the worst violators of forced labour. Cleppe stated that it was important to use a targeted approach to flagging bad actors and countries. It is easy to just say “no more commerce” with offenders, but this is not the right approach.
Loewendorf supported a targeted approach and said: “It’s also not always obvious who speaks for the EU in this matter so it is important to make clear to whom our trading partners can speak to in order for their contribution to be accepted.”
He said that Malaysian industry can address the issue of forced labor to gain an advantage over other countries in the region. Malaysia could become a regional standard-setting country, and this could have an impact on other countries in the region.
The ambassador responded: “This new approach to human rights and trade is now part EU trade policy, and that is welcomed.”
Loewendorf said that the cultural aspect of the problem can be addressed by: “There is an understanding this is not an economic problem but is a deeply-rooted problem, such as in the palm oil industry, which has its roots back in colonization. This is a larger problem, and it is important to understand what forced labor is.
In supporting these efforts, the EU can play a significant role by offering incentives, for instance.
“But values aren’t incentives. They are costs. The EU could provide technical assistance and financial funding as an incentive. This is essential because it is necessary to tackle forced labour with a holistic approach. He said that it is both an industry and a government process, so we will take action at all levels.”
He said that some parts of Malaysia are more vulnerable to forced labor than others, but there is an understanding of the problem and steps are being taken to address it.
Cleppe stated that a ranking system on forced labor could be an idea. For example, it would show where there has been progress and inform people.
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