PUTRAJAYA | Human Resources Minister M Kula Segaran today warned that certain companies would be unable to export their products to the United States if they did not work on eliminating forced labour.

In September, the US Customs and Borders Protection blocked the import of products from five countries suspected to have been produced, in whole or in part, using forced labour – with leading local rubber glove manufacturer WRP Asia Pacific Sdn Bhd among those sanctioned.

Apart from complaints about Bangladeshi and Nepali workers in bondage, WRP Asia Pacific had also been accused of committing labour offences related to overtime, pay cuts and working hours during breaks and public holidays.

“I went to the US and met with the head of the Customs and Border Protection, and they said they were very concerned about Malaysia because now (the rules) have changed,” Kula told reporters at the sidelines of his ministry’s open day.

“Now, they look for elements of forced labour throughout the whole supply chain. That means if you produce a glove, now the US is looking at the rubber estates to check whether there is forced labour there.

“The problem is it’s not just America. Once America starts, then Europe, and other countries will follow (with sanctions),” said Kula.

The minister said the US Trade Representative’s (USTR) suspension of duty-free treatment on Thailand in October should be a deterrent for Malaysia.

The six-month suspension of US$1.3 billion in trade preferences for certain Thai products came into effect because the US felt Thailand had not taken sufficient steps to recognise workers’ rights.

Kula said his ministry was pushing to upgrade outdated labour laws and promote awareness of social compliance audit reports among companies.

Effective Jan 1, 2021, companies have to hire independent auditors to conduct social compliance audits into issues such as forced labour, forced overtime and other issues in accordance with international labour laws – or risk facing action by the human resources ministry.

While he agreed that a lot of companies did not want these audits and there might be some who would try to cheat, Kula said the reports would play a large part in protecting workers’ rights.

“You see like the WRP case, we are not talking about one or two workers but thousands of workers,” said Kula.

“Look at WRP now. How many hundreds of thousands of ringgit of their product have been seized in America. It’s the first time in our history that they (the US) have done this.”