By Mei Mei Chu and A. Ananthalakshmi
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – U.S. government investigators questioned workers at the Malaysian Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co plant about their working conditions, employees told Reuters, stepping up scrutiny of potential labor abuses by the tire manufacturer in the country.
Interrogation by the Department of Homeland Security could lead to U.S. lawsuits against one of the world’s largest tire manufacturers, which faces related lawsuits and two ongoing investigations by regulators in Malaysia and the States United, each examining the potential exploitation of foreign workers.
Five current and former Goodyear Malaysia employees said agents from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) asked about their working and living conditions, details of the lawsuits they had brought against Goodyear, a complaint to the police alleging threats from Goodyear personnel and workplace accidents.
In video calls over the past 11 months or more, officers from the Department of Homeland Security’s main criminal investigation unit have also requested documents relating to their employment, the workers said, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Reuters could not determine the specific violations that HSI seeks to establish.
HSI said it does not comment on the ongoing investigations.
Ohio-based Goodyear said it is committed to ensuring its supply chain practices comply with laws and its own policies.
“Goodyear and Goodyear Malaysia are undertaking a thorough review of the matter, including bringing in an independent social audit firm to inspect working and housing conditions,” Goodyear told Reuters in an emailed statement. Goodyear has not identified the audit firm.
HSI’s questioning follows initial allegations made in three complaints by 185 migrant workers from Nepal, India and Myanmar – including the five who spoke to Reuters – against Goodyear Malaysia in the country’s labor court in 2019 and 2020. They alleged unpaid wages, citing non-payments. respect for a collective agreement, unjustified deductions and threats against migrant workers.
In 2020 and June, the court ordered Goodyear to reimburse some workers’ wages and comply with the agreement. The company appealed the verdicts.
Goodyear told Reuters it is now committed to reaching a settlement with the workers represented in the labor dispute.
The company argued in court that foreign workers were not entitled to the benefits of the collective agreement because they are not unionized. He declined to comment on the allegations.
Malaysia’s largest fund manager, Permodalan Nasional Berhad, which owns 49% of Goodyear Malaysia, did not respond to requests for comment.
FOCUS ON FORCED LABOR Representatives of the Malaysian government’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Council (MAPO) also participated in some of the video calls with HSI, the five workers said.
Former MAPO chief Mohd Hadzwan Zulkefle, who workers say was on the calls, told Reuters the agency has opened an investigation into Goodyear Malaysia for labor trafficking. He did not say when MAPO launched the investigation, which has not been reported before.
He declined to say whether MAPO was collaborating with US authorities.
A MAPO spokesperson told Reuters he was aware of the “alleged forced labor problem” at Goodyear Malaysia, and that the issue is being investigated by “responsible parties.”
Peninsular Malaysia’s Ministry of Labor, which last year accused Goodyear Malaysia of violating labor laws, did not respond to a request for comment. Goodyear has not commented on the Labor Department’s charges.
In July, the US State Department downgraded Malaysia to its worst ranking for human trafficking, after a series of complaints from rights groups and US authorities about alleged exploitation by plantations and migrant worker factories, on which the Southeast Asian nation depends.
Goodyear Malaysia is already the subject of an investigation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection over its labor practices, according to Liberty Shared, an advocacy group that requested the customs investigation. Customs can prohibit the importation of goods they believe are made with forced labor.
Goodyear did not respond to a question about the MAPO investigation.
The company told Reuters in July that it was unaware of the petition to U.S. Customs and that it had strict policies to protect human rights.
HSI can initiate criminal investigations and coordinate possible criminal prosecutions against US companies and supply chains destined for the United States whose products are made through forced labor, according to its website.
A formal HSI investigation “would be extremely important as it would shift the discussion of forced labor from business ethics and sustainability to a discussion related to criminal law,” said Duncan Jepson, managing director of Liberty Shared, based at Hong Kong.
However, Jepson said a challenge in establishing wrongdoing would be the lack of precedent.
In the United States, he said, “law enforcement and lawyers prefer to have previous cases to support their strategies and, when it comes to forced labor, there is no criminal record against it. transnational corporations ”.
Documents previously seen by Reuters show that some workers at Goodyear Malaysia work up to 229 hours of overtime per month, more than double the maximum allowed by Malaysian law. The workers said money was wrongly deducted from their wages and the company was denying them free access to their passports.
Goodyear declined to comment on the allegations, citing legal proceedings.
Malaysia’s labor department said in May it had indicted Goodyear in 2020 for nine labor law violations, unrelated to the prosecution, relating to excessive hours and unjustified pay deductions.
The five workers interviewed by Reuters told HSI investigators that they were not happy with the facilities the company provided, that their hostels were crowded, that they paid recruitment fees in their home country. origin and did not get the salary increases and allowances to which they were entitled.
(Reporting by Mei Mei Chu and A. Ananthalakshmi; editing by William Mallard)