Malaysia’s Leaders Set the Course on Labour Rights with Biden Administration


On the sidelines of the U.S. – ASEAN Summit, the Malaysian Government held bilateral discussions with the Biden Administration on the need to address forced labour in Malaysia.

The discussions between Malaysia’s Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri M. Saravanan, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs Thea Lee and Custom and Border Protection’s Executive Assistant Commissioner AnnMarie Highsmith led to the announcement the two countries would form a committee to address forced labour, including via policy formulation. The committee will meet every three months.

Minister Saravanan also announced that the CBP is expected to visit Malaysia before the end of May and hold a training session with government and industry stakeholders on compliance with U.S. labour laws and to discuss pathways forward.

Minister Saravanan said that “The workshop will shed a light on matters related to elements of forced labour that should be avoided by industry players so that their products will not be banned from entering the United States market.”

Malaysia’s Minister for Plantation Industries and Commodities, Datuk Seri Zuraida Kamaruddin, hailed the formation of the committee and welcomed further engagement with the CBP, noting, “This is a move in the right direction to resolve this long outstanding issue that has unfairly plagued local industries, in particular palm oil and rubber.

Finally, the government announced that amendments to the Trade Unions Act would be tabled before parliament in July.

Reforms to the Trade Unions Act have been a key ask of the U.S., and international community with regards to labour issues in Malaysia for many years.

The amendments will remove restrictions on the formation of trade unions in Malaysia, and reduce the powers of the Director General of Trade Unions (DGTU) in terms of refusing to register or deregistering trading unions. This relates specifically to the DGTU being able to refuse registration if there is more than one union operating in a specific type of industry. In addition, it includes a narrowing of the ability of the DGTU to cancel registration in the event of ‘unlawful’ activity – where any legal breaches must be serious for the cancellation to take place.

Critically, it also changes the voting thresholds for unions seeking to take strike action. Currently strike action requires a two-thirds majority; this will be changed to a 50 per cent majority. But it will also increase penalties for unions that choose strike action without seeking a vote from members first.

There are many other amendments to the Act covering membership and administration, including opening union membership – and therefore elected positions – to all nationalities. 

Changes to the Trade Unions Act were a key part of the Malaysia-US Labor Consistency Plan, which was introduced in 2015 when both the US and Malaysia were negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, which has since become the CPTPP.

Many of the key amendments listed here were covered in the Labor Consistency Plan – which means that the reforms are in line with the expectations of the international community. The amendments also follow the decision to raise the country’s minimum wage by 25 per cent at the beginning of May.