Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, executive director of BPSOS, signs MoU with Esquel.
JUNE 5, 2008: On February 19 of this year, Boat People SOS (BPSOS) launched a campaign to seek redress for around 1,300 Vietnamese guest workers who were being mistreated by Esquel Malaysia, a part of Hong Kong-based Esquel Enterprise Ltd., one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers.
Esquel, with annual sales of US$500 million, produces 64 million shirts a year for brand-name customers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, JC Penney, Aeon, Konaka, Aoyama, Lacoste, Banana Republic, Marks & Spencer, Brooks Brothers, Muji, Burberry, Nautica, Cortefiel, Next, Daidoh, Nike, Esprit, Nordstrom, Gant, Polo, Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, Right On, Ito-Yokado, Ted Baker, J. Crew, and Tommy Hilfiger.
In 2007, Esquel hired 1,300 Vietnamese to work in Penang, Malaysia as guest workers, guaranteeing each individual a minimum pay equivalent to US$245 per month. However, when the workers arrived in Malaysia, their belongings and personal documents were confiscated by Esquel, and they were forced to work at much lower wages. BPSOS estimates that the workers were being paid as low as RM 8.90, which is equivalent to less than US$3.00. This small amount of income made it impossible for workers to afford food, and many survived on rice that was donated by Malaysian Good Samaritans.
Those who questioned the unfair wages were abducted in the dead of night, detained at the company’s compound, and within hours repatriated to Vietnam. An estimated 300 workers who questioned their contract were sent back to Vietnam. Once home, they faced huge debts consisting of money borrowed from loan sharks to pay the service fees required by labor export firms. Those individuals who were left behind in Malaysia continued to work and live in fear.
BPSOS, upon receiving word of the situation, and after months of careful investigation, engaged Esquel in ongoing negotiations to address the workers’ grievances. The discussions and various forms of community pressure bore fruit, and on March 18, BPSOS and Esquel formally signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The MoU includes the following: implementing a guaranteed minimum-wage system in conjunction with its piece rate pay, improving its skill based training programs to make certain employees have a better working environment, strengthening Esquel’s mechanism for both local and foreign employees by engaging in employee discussions, and compensating Vietnamese workers who were involuntarily dismissed and repatriated.
“We are impressed with the way Esquel has handled the situation and is moving forward with the workers’ interests in mind,” said Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, the executive director of BPSOS, whose organization in 2000 played a key role in rescuing over 250 Vietnamese and Chinese held under conditions of indentured servitude by the American Samoa Daewoosa sweatshop.
The success of the campaign for justice for the Esquel workers does not mean, however, that all has been accomplished for Vietnamese guest workers in Malaysia. BPSOS is delving into the practices of dozens of other companies to ensure that they treat their Vietnamese employees fairly. If it turns out that many more guest workers are being similarly abused, the Alliance to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery in Asia (CAMSA), which BPSOS helped found along with the German International Society for Human Rights, the Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers-USA, and the Vietnamese Canadian Federation, will come to the workers’ aid.