For the last two years, Verité has been meeting with migrant workers in the electronics sector in Malaysia to understand their experiences. Our findings shocked us – one in three of the hundreds of thousands of migrants working in Malaysian electronics manufacturing is in a condition of forced labor.

These Burmese, Nepalis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Vietnamese, Thais, Indonesians and Filipinos work in modern factories. But because they are foreigners they are often employed by third-party labor agents rather than the factories themselves.

They face persecution from anti-immigrant militias, and often have no recourse to the legal protections that domestic workers enjoy. These conditions compound their vulnerability – many have already taken out large loans at high rates of interest to pay fees to recruiters.

These conditions are common among migrant workers whether in Malaysia, the Middle East, India or the USA. To commemorate International Migrants’ Day, December 18, we want to share what these foreign workers in Malaysia told us, as well as some good news about two companies that are taking innovative steps to protect them.

Migrant workers pay high fees to labor brokers. They borrow from informal lenders at high rates of interest. Later they are often hit with unexpected (and illegal) deductions from their paychecks.

My debt in Burma is okay, because I know the balance, but here I know nothing about the charges and deductions taken. –Male Burmese worker

We paid almost double compared to the amount we were told in Vietnam. –Female Vietnamese worker

Even after two years, I have not been able to pay off my debt. I feel very burdened. –Male Nepalese worker

Migrant workers are forced to sign contracts they don’t understand, which are later changed unilaterally by their employers.

We didn’t know the language of the document that we signed. –Female Indonesian worker

The contract that we signed, it was written in English. The agent asked us to sign, and that was it. They explained it, but once I reached Malaysia, things there were totally different from the agreement. –Male Bangladeshi worker

The wage and the working hours are different from the information I received before I came. In the contract, it states that we will be working four days on and two days off, but in reality we are working for six days at a time. This means we only have one day off per week. –Female Indonesian worker

Workers don’t get paid as much as they were promised.

When I was recruited, the agent promised my salary would be MYR 1,364-1,515 (USD 422-468), but in fact it is MYR 1,100 (USD 340). –Female Vietnamese worker

Back in Nepal, the agent promised us regular overtime, but here overtime is uncertain. –Male Nepalese worker

In the contract, transportation is written as free, but now I am being deducted MYR 40 (USD 12) per month for the shuttle. –Female Burmese worker

Factories often ignore basic health and safety protections.

My company forces us to work on Sunday. My friend refused to work on Sunday, and they fined him. We are very angry with those wrongful deductions. –Male Vietnamese worker

Our employer forces us to work seven days a week. I am exhausted. I stand for 12 hours every day. If we don’t work, our employer beats us. I have seen a Nepalese worker beaten. The employer also beat a Vietnamese worker and cut her hair. –Female Vietnamese worker

Migrant workers are vulnerable to harassment by the police and by RELA, a government-sponsored civil militia that polices immigrants.

We usually avoid going out, as we don’t have our passports. Sometimes the police ask to see our original passports and will not accept copies. In that case, we have to bribe them [to be released]. –Female Burmese worker

I don’t understand the policy of Malaysia on foreign workers. All agents have imposed different rules on us, though we all are working in the same company. –Female Burmese worker

All foreign workers are fair game for RELA, it doesn’t matter if you’re the head of your department or have a good rank in the company. Also, not all who accost you and ask for your passport are RELA or an official of the government, some of them are just locals who want to harass you. A friend of mine was asked by a civilian for his passport, and when he opened his bag to take out his passport, the civilian took his wallet and ran. –Male Filipino worker

Workers are at the mercy of their agents, who employ them directly.

After work, the employer locks us in the hostel. Every week he just chooses a few of us to go out to the market for a few hours, then back to the hostel. The guard supervises us closely. We can’t go out; if we don’t listen to him, he will beat us. –Female Vietnamese worker

When we were still in Indonesia, the agent said that we would work under the company. But in reality, we are outsourced. –Female Indonesian worker

If workers want to leave their jobs, they have to pay hundreds of dollars to terminate their contracts.

If we want to quit, we have to pay MYR 1,000 (USD 309). –Female Indonesian worker

The agent has a policy regarding pre-termination. Workers have to pay MYR 3,500 (USD 1,082) if they have been working for less than one year and MYR 1,500 (USD 464) if they have been working for more than one year. –Male Filipino worker

I don’t know the exact amount of the [pre-termination] fine, but a colleague paid around MYR 4,000 (USD 1,237) with 17 months remaining in his contract. –Male Filipino worker

One worker summed up the despair that many migrants feel.

This is a terrible life. I would have never come here if I had known that this is what I would go through. Luck has not favored me. I can’t even return to my home country because I don’t have my passport. –Male Burmese worker

The good news is that these injustices can be fixed.

Two companies in the electronics sector have taken steps to protect migrant workers. Apple requires that suppliers and recruiters reimburse to workers any excessive fees paid, and has returned USD 16.9 million to workers since 2008. These reimbursements improve workers’ current financial situations and help alleviate the debt burden that hangs over them and which prevents them from advocating for themselves.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently announced a new standard for foreign workers in its global supply chain, developed in consultation with Verité. Under the new standard, HP suppliers must ensure that the workers on their premises have not paid fees to work. Suppliers must also directly employ the workers in their factories. This change means more accountability to workers from management, and reduces their vulnerability.

Verité is honored to serve the brave, hardworking people who migrate – at great risk and personal sacrifice – to make better lives for their families. We’re grateful to the companies that have stepped up to protect workers. And we look forward to seeing these protections extended throughout the electronics sector, to other sectors in Malaysia, and to migrant workers everywhere.

Verité is proud to announce the launch of a new eLearning course on human trafficking in the global economy. It is free, self-paced and interactive, designed for business and other stakeholders to help them better understand, identify and address human trafficking in global supply chains.