Under pressure to crack down on labor abuses, Malaysia is moving to eliminate middlemen who charge millions of foreign workers exorbitant recruitment fees, leaving them saddled with debt and vulnerable to exploitation.
From factories to construction sites and plantations, the Southeast Asian nation relies heavily on foreign workers for jobs usually shunned by locals.
Many arrive having borrowed huge sums to pay recruitment agents, meaning they have to work for years earning virtually nothing - a form of modern-day slavery known as debt bondage.
In a bid to address this, recently Malaysia struck a deal with Nepal to directly recruit workers there, without going through agents. The agreement came after Nepal temporarily suspended sending workers due to concerns about their treatment.
“This is aimed at curbing human trafficking and exploitation of workers,” Malaysian human resources minister M. Kulasegaran told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“They must not be in a bondage situation in this country and caught in a vicious cycle of earning to pay back money.”
Under the agreement, which came into effect on October 29, Nepali workers will be hired on a government-to-government basis. Malaysian employers will have to bear all the recruitment costs, including airfare, and visa and medical check-up fees.
Kulasegaran said Malaysia is negotiating similar agreements with Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nepal are the top providers of Malaysia's nearly 2 million registered migrant workers, government figures show. There are millions more without work permits.
The world's largest glove maker, the Malaysian firm Top Glove, said this month it would cut ties with unethical recruitment agents, after some of its migrant workers were found to have clocked excessive overtime to clear debts.
Debt bondage is one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery, which affects more than 40 million people worldwide, according to the United Nations' International Labour Organization.
Kulasegaran, the government minister, has urged major firms operating in Malaysia to take the lead in ensuring there are no labor abuses among migrant workers.
Aegile Fernandez, from the Malaysian migrant rights group Tenaganita, welcomed the government's plan to eliminate recruitment agents - but she warned that foreign workers continue to be exploited in other ways.