Malaysian court sides with forced labor victims over unpaid wages

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An undocumented domestic worker has the right to pursue her claim for unpaid wages in Malaysia, a court has ruled, setting a legal precedent migrant rights groups said would help protect human trafficking survivors.

In a landmark ruling this week, a high court in Malaysia said an Indonesian domestic worker who was not paid for nearly five years can pursue her case after it was dismissed earlier by labor authorities because she did not have a work permit.

“This is a precedent for all undocumented workers,” Glorene Das, executive director at the Kuala Lumpur-based migrant rights group Tenaganita, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday.

“With this precedent, there is hope for undocumented workers to seek redress in court. They are workers who have been exploited in trafficked and forced labor situations,” she said by phone.

Malaysia relies heavily on foreign workers in areas such as manufacturing, domestic work and on plantations, hosting millions of migrant laborers from countries such as Indonesia, Nepal and Bangladesh.

But many of them are victims of human trafficking who were duped by brokers with promises of lucrative pay, often arriving without a valid work permit, and then suffer abuses later.

The Indonesian woman, who is in her 20s and whose name was withheld by Tenaganita for privacy reasons, fled to the group’s shelter in 2017. Tenaganita helped her file the legal case over unpaid wages.

She sought about 30,000 Malaysian ringgit ($7,300) in unpaid wages at the government’s labor department and then a labor court, but both rejected her case.

She lodged an appeal with a high court last year, which ruled on Monday that it was “premature” for the claim to be thrown out based on the work permit status, according to Tenaganita and the Malaysiakini news website.

The court also ordered the case to be fully heard.

“All I want is my wages that I have worked for, so that I can go home to my family,” the Indonesian woman said in a statement provided by Tenaganita.

The high court and the labor department could not be reached on Tuesday due to a public holiday.

Indonesia and Cambodia, key sources of migrant workers to Malaysia, have in the past temporarily banned their citizens from going to work in Malaysia as maids after cases of abuse.

Malaysia has said this year that it was ready to “declare war” on human trafficking and forced labor, with a review of labor laws was underway.

The U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons report put Malaysia in its Tier 2 Watch List - the second-lowest ranking - for not meeting the minimum standards in efforts to eliminate human trafficking.

($1 = 4.1230 ringgit)

Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit