Dato Dr Jacob George is a well known figure in Malaysia. Over the years, he has been constantly fighting for the rights of migrant workers who come to work in that Southeast Asian nation. The intense lobbying of Dr George along with other labour rights activists has led to the introduction of the ‘free visa, free ticket’ policy for migrant workers in the country. Similarly, he is also active in the protection of consumer rights. Starting at the early age of 18, Dr George’s consumer rights advocacy has crossed over four decades. Likewise, he is proactively engaged in contemporary human resource management and environmental issues. He has served as advisor to different ministries of the Malaysian government. Apart from activism, he is also regarded as an expert on ASEAN and APEC issues. Author of various books, researches and publications, he was recently in Nepal on a visit. In an interview with Madan Lamsal, Editor-in-Chief of New Business Age, Dr George talks about the problems faced by Nepali migrant workers, the situation of consumer rights in Nepal and HR issues, among other things. Excerpts:
What brings you to Nepal this time?
I have been coming to Nepal for the last 25 years. I have a lot of friends in the country. My relationship with them has always been very formal. My grandparents were also very close to the Gurkhas. I am romantically involved with Nepal and have thought of this country as my second home. When the ‘free visa, free ticket’ project was initiated, we wanted to use Nepal because of the close ties I have with the country. I am very concerned about the exploitation of Nepali workers.
How are the workers exploited?
Over the years, we have realised that foreign workers are exploited. They are exploited mainly by agents and then the employers. By supplying the workers, the agents not only earn money from the employers, but also from the employees. The remunerations of many workers are much less than what they are offered earlier. The systematic exploitation has crossed over two decades in most source countries of Asia including Nepal, Bangladesh, Philippines, Pakistan, India, Vietnam and Burma.
Over the years there have been many attempts to address the issue of labour exploitation. Many ideas have come to the fore and are implemented but with a limited impact. There are many problems regarding the control of labour exploitation. First of all, source countries do not work closely with the advocates. Similarly, the strong lobbying power of agents to continue the status quo is also hindering the issues.
What are you doing in this regard?
I have been working, campaigning and lobbying to end the labour exploitation. I have been engaging in talks with senior officials at the Malaysian government and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The discussions have been very positive. We have pressurised the employers to come out with what we people now call the ‘zero cost’ or ‘free visa free ticket’ policy. The objective of that particular initiative is to eradicate the engagement of agents regarding the supply of foreign workers.
I believe that the cheating and exploitation of workers needs to be stopped. Most of the migrant workers from the source countries are villagers who can easily be cheated and exploited.
So during my discussions with senior Nepali government officials, former prime minister, labour minister and home minister, I decided to make Nepal a pilot project regarding the control of labour exploitation.
With the pilot project, there will be a system in place to manage the terms of labour contracts, processes and legal guidelines ensuring that the workers do not get cheated. We intend to monitor every process. This initiative demands positive role of employers.
We are currently working with Flextronis from Malaysia in this particular venture. With the company, we initiated the project more than two years ago. Since that period, we have brought 4,000 Nepali workers to Malaysia using the free visa free ticket policy.
How is the situation for migrant workers in Malaysia today? How do you view the problems faced by Nepali migrant workers in Malaysia?
The problems faced by migrant workers in Malaysia today are much less compared to two decades earlier. Today, better laws are in place to protect them. Similarly, the Malaysian home ministry is very strict regarding the treatment of foreign workers in companies. Many employers have been blacklisted and some are even facing jail sentences for exploiting workers.
There are isolated cases of Nepali workers being cheated and exploited. The way media presents such incidents as news has been one of the key reasons for such isolated cases to get highlighted. Many Nepalis in recent years have been sponsored to come to Malaysia in the ‘free ticket and free visa’ policy. Some problems have arisen due to the carelessness of the workers themselves. Some workers, after starting to earn money, drink, start fighting, and destroy property where they work and fall into various troubles.
The depreciation of the Malaysian Ringgit in recent years has also become another issue for Nepali migrant workers. As the value of the Malaysian currency is shrinking, Nepali workers are earning less at present.
What can be done to enhance the skill of Nepali migrant workers?
Nepal has a lot of semi-skilled and unskilled manpower which the country has been exporting for a long time. Now that needs to be changed. Through the proper mobilisation of resources and by providing proper training, the workforce can be up-skilled. If Nepal can export a skilled workforce, the country can see the inflow of remittances increasing. At the same time Nepal can largely benefit from those coming back with extra skills. This can increase opportunities in the country which can also be used locally. I believe that Nepal being a landlocked country is not resource locked. It is the government’s duty to open up the economy to create jobs, to attract investments and ensure a better business environment.
As a leading consumer activist, how do you find the situation of consumer rights in Nepal? What are your suggestions on consumer empowerment?
There are a lot of issues to be addressed regarding the strengthening of consumer rights in Nepal. I think that the issues are not so profound. I have personally felt that Nepali consumers are being badly cheated. From the quality of goods and services to the prices of items, there is a widespread anomaly in the market.
I strongly suggest establishing a ministry to protect the consumer rights. I have been appealing to the Nepali government to establish the Ministry of Consumer Affairs which will take care of all consumer related issues. A department alone cannot handle it all when issues are so entrenched.
In Malaysia, we have the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs which oversees consumer related issues. It is also important to have a ministry as it can effectively formulate and implement laws and regulations such as consumer rights, food safety and other related areas.
What is the condition of consumer rights in Malaysia?
We are proud to say that we have more than 45 consumer rights laws. We also have a very proactive consumer movement in Malaysia and the relation between consumer bodies and the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs is very cordial. If the government plans to introduce new laws, consumer rights advocates are invited to take part in the discussions to assess the impacts of the proposed laws and regulations.
We also have a price control mechanism in Malaysia which usually becomes active before festivals like Eid, Deepawali, Christmas and the Chinese New Year. The mechanism stops wholesalers, retailers and others to manipulate prices of goods and services in the market, as they know that consumers spend more during the festivals. It makes sure that prices are controlled and prevents business outlets and third parties from profiteering. Similarly, an Anti-profiteering Bill has also been introduced into the Malaysian parliament which is the first of its kind in the world. This shows the close relation between the Malaysian government, consumer bodies and consumers. We are now trying to extend our efforts to other ASEAN and Asia-Pacific countries. We want to create a win-win situation for both consumers and businesses.
How do you find the quality of goods and services in the Nepali market?
While visiting a few shops and supermarkets, I was upset about the quality of goods. I found that the local markets have been dumped with Chinese goods. There are no standards to look after the quality of goods. I saw many goods with health hazards being sold carelessly. The pricing of goods is also an area which needs to be looked into. Goods without proper labels are being sold. Likewise, the sellers do not have expertise to explain the specifications and features of the goods they are selling.
There seems to be a huge gap in terms of the knowledge and responsibility of stakeholders. The owners of the businesses have a responsibility to inform customers about the quality, safety and origin of the products.
How can a fair pricing system be established that benefits both consumers and businesses?
I see an eminent need of establishing a Fair Price Secretariat where consumer advocates, business representatives and government representative can work together on a price mechanism. Fair pricing of goods can be done by formulating a benchmark.
You are also involved in environmental issues. Like other parts of the world, environment related issues often conflict with the large development projects here in Nepal. How can we achieve prosperity associated with the projects while also balancing the environmental issues?
We need to have a holistic development approach for a balancing act. Besides the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of projects, taking feedback from local people is important. Similarly, conversations with the policymakers regarding the possible changes that may have positive impacts from a particular project are also necessary.
I think media has a big role to play in these issues. Generally, people with money, lobbying power and the bureaucracies don’t listen to the voices from the grassroots. This is why the media plays a very important role to ask for factual EIAs, conversations and discussions. Similarly, there should be a law in place that sets parameters and standards to regulate the environmental impacts of the projects.
What human resource strategies should business organisations apply to achieve higher productivity in the corporate world?
Enhanced skills, mind power, entrepreneurship, transfer of technology, automation of work processes and many other factors are what the future holds for us.
Repeating hours of long hard work on a daily basis for a lifetime is dehumanising because you are not optimising your skills and utilising the potential. Institutions need to focus on the enhancement of skills of their employees to yield higher productivity. Educational institutions and other independent organisations can do research activities to find out the weaknesses and strengths of the workforce in the corporate institutions.
You are also an expert on ASEAN issues. How do you view the spectacular regional cooperation among the South East Asia nations to overcome the various economic issues?
Compared to a decade ago, the conversations between the ASEAN nations have become more dynamic. Secretariats have been set up across all capitals of the member nations to facilitate discussions among the countries. Similarly, the policymakers as well as intellectuals and independent professionals in the region are also much more engaged in highlighting concerns across various issues. Like in Europe, we have been successful in creating a scenario in ASEAN and APEC where the countries are working together for mutual benefit. We have realised that there is a huge potential for economic prosperity in the region and if the countries can work together we can create a borderless situation which will ultimately benefit the people at the grassroots. With the increasing cooperation, the nations have also become politically stable and the level of conflicts between the countries has been largely reduced over the years. Meanwhile, we are also positively engaged in terms of discussions and cooperation with our friends such as China, India and Nepal.
What can South Asian nations learn from the economic cooperation of the ASEAN countries?
One of the important things for the South Asian nations is to asses their strengths and weaknesses. Dialogue between the countries is necessary to overcome the weaknesses. The nations need to exchange ideas and provide effective support to each other in order to prevail over the weaknesses.
Our experience in ASEAN clearly shows that dialogue has been key to remove misunderstandings between the nations. It opens up the countries to engage more in cooperation to achieve common goals.
This process has started but it is not enough. For example, during natural calamities like in last year’s earthquake in Nepal, South Asian countries strongly showed their support to an affected nation. Now this has to be translated into other situations where countries can help each other.