Report Release: The Road to Worthy Work and Valuable Labour

12 November 2020


The situation of migrant workers in Malaysia is an issue of significant concern. National dynamics highlight an economy with a high demand for cheap, docile, low-skilled labour coupled to a socio-political environment that maintains a strict immigration regime. Together with the seemingly infinite supply of cheap and desperate labour from poorer countries across the region, the situation results in the excessive risk of exploitation and labour rights abuses. Whilst the increased media attention to the plight of foreign workers has precipitated incremental changes in the regulatory framework and labour standards, there is still a long way to go before the fundamental rights of migrant labourers are fully achieved.

Cognisant of these risks, a consortium of industry actors, namely Bunge Loders Croklaan, Cargill, and Mondel─ôz International, commissioned Embode to undertake an independent assessment of the issues. The research gathered data from over 100 migrant workers and their families, as well as 60 stakeholder consultations across government, industry, and civil society. Following the completion of the research, further consultation was undertaken with the Malaysian Government in order to ensure joint and transparent action is supported and taken. Today, we are publicly releasing these findings and strategic recommendations in order to facilitate broader, multi-stakeholder discourse across governments, industry and civil society on the issues facing migrant workers.

The publication of ‘The Road to Worthy Work and Valuable Labour’ marks the culmination of this research, which was undertaken across two phases. Phase 1 of the project focused on all migrant workers in Malaysia’s palm oil sector, and Phase 2 focused on Nepali migrant labour to all industry sectors of Malaysia. The report provides an overview of the situation of migrant workers in the regulatory and industry context of Malaysia, as well as an in-depth presentation of the recruitment processes and agent dynamics across the Nepal-Malaysia labour migration corridor. Notably, the report also provides important insights into the political and systemic dynamics that drive actors to behave in ways that put workers at risk of exploitation and labour abuse.

One of the key findings of the research is the striking dearth of platforms and formal roles for foreign workers to be heard and represented in Malaysia. Although workers are legally able to join trade unions, they are not able to hold office. The lack of legal capacity to represent themselves means that migrant workers’ voices are rarely heard in national mainstream media stories with regard to relevant issues, as well as on important national or international platforms. It is left to civil society and industry to ensure workers are accessed and consulted both in public or within businesses. Another key finding is that current efforts towards zero-fee recruitment are severely limited by the economic reality that the job market for migrant workers relies upon agents to find them jobs abroad. Where the number of people seeking jobs is immensely more than the number of jobs themselves, the job itself becomes commoditised. In essence, the recruitment fee sought from workers becomes an unofficial ‘job-finder fee’.

These examples are just a glimpse into the findings presented in the - report. Embode will be bringing a spotlight to more of the important findings from this research in a series of blog pieces over the coming weeks. Meanwhile, see below to access the full report.

Executive Summary (9 pages)

Main Report (45 pages)

Focus Assessments (providing more in-depth analysis)

1.     The Malaysian Palm Oil Sector and Sustainability Trends

2.     The Malaysian Foreign Employment Regulatory Framework

3.     Labour Sending Country Frameworks

4.     The Role and Function of Agents

5.     The Situation of Migrant Labour in the Palm Oil Sector

6.     Strategy Analysis of Stakeholders and Dynamics


Aarti Kapoor