Kedah, the Malaysian state where the firm Hong Nam is based.
February 9, 2009: The last two months witnessed a significant victory for the Coalition to Abolish Modern-day Slavery in Asia (CAMSA), and more importantly, for the workers of the Hong Nam company in Malaysia.
Hong Nam is an electrical equipment producer headquartered in Malaysia’s state of Kedah. Twenty-eight Vietnamese workers, both male and female, were working there. They had found jobs in Malaysia through Vietnamese labor export firms like OSC, VILEXIM, HITECO, and PETROSETCO.
Some of these laborers arrived on August 28, 2006, and others on September 4, 2006 and March 1, 2007. The minimum monthly wage agreed to by the company and the workers was RM771.75 (US$214). In months and years past, the workers had been very satisfied with the wages and working conditions.
However, two issues arose. First, why was the company withholding RM8-22 (US$2.2-6) per person per month for electricity/water from the workers’ paychecks? Second, why was the firm deducting RM160 (US$44.40) from paychecks for transportation between the workers’ dormitory and the workplace? The workers’ contract stipulated clearly that the company was responsible for providing, without charge, both electricity/water and transportation.
On December 4 of last year, the company’s general director gathered the workers and told them that financial woes brought on by the world economic slump meant that the company could no longer guarantee normal working conditions. He suggested that any worker who wanted to return home should sign up to go and would receive a plane ticket back to Vietnam. Those workers who wished to remain could do so, but might work only 2-4 days per week. Several workers signed up to go home.
A few days went by without the company saying anything more about the matter. Concerned, the workers association halted work. The firm sent representatives to their dorm to urge them to work, but to no avail. At that point the workers were only on the job 2-4 days/week, and were being paid significantly less.
On December 12, the workers’ representatives visited the firm’s office and asked about the plan for returning home. The company replied that anyone who signed a release stating their desire to return home voluntarily, and who put up the money, would receive a plane ticket. The company did not agree to take any responsibility in the matter.
Panicked, the workers called the Penang office of CAMSA. The CAMSA staff advised the workers that, as a first step, they should go to the local government labor office and make a statement that would ensure a direct investigation of the facts. This the workers did, on December 15. Malaysian officials promised to look into the matter and help the workers resolve the issues.
Stay tuned for the outcome of this case (Pt. II of the Hong Nam story will be posted tomorrow as the details are translated from Vietnamese).