Fitting migrant workers into plural Malaysia

JUNE 04, 2010

Foreign workers from Bangladesh wait at an airport carpark turned into an immigration depot in Sepang Sept 20, 2007. — Reuters pic
PENANG, June 4 — They move among us like shadows. We see them all day and we do our best to avoid making contact. Malaysia’s plural society, where ethnicity and profession are strongly associated, has become more plural, with the country’s relative wealth attracting foreigners in the region to come and do the jobs we disdain. Migrant workers are often ignored socially, but that is the least of their problems. What causes the most heartache for them is that they are legally ignored. Their pain is our shame.

Many accusing fingers are pointed when foreign labour and its implications are discussed in this country. The mere mention of migrant workers is usually greeted with a sneer, and when not, it is because of indifference. Foreign workers are often seen as a wage depressant, and accused of “taking” jobs away from locals. While the federal government has pledged to reduce the influx of foreign labourers, their number has soared from 1,470,000 in 2004 to 2,100,000 in 2009.

Recently, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak called on the nation to shift to a high income economy by adopting an approach based on “innovation, creativity and high value-added initiative”.
Indeed, the underlying reason for Malaysia’s dependency on foreign labour is that the nation has yet to succeed in building value-added industries based on innovation and creativity. The country’s industries are still largely labour-intensive. The reaction from the business community towards federal government crackdowns on migrant workers further strengthens the point — resistance, as was clearly reflected in a recent postponement of a planned crackdown. Any sweep that sends immigrants home has the potential to lead to the dysfunction of certain industries.

Such is certainly the case in Penang. Being the Silicon Valley of South-East Asia, Penang has significantly labour-intensive industries in the manufacturing sector as well as tourism. While official numbers are not readily available, social activists estimate that there are 70,000 to 80,000 migrant workers in Penang.

In 2004, a study titled “Impact of Foreign Workers on the Malaysian Economy” was commissioned by the National Economic Action Council. The RM1.16mil report, which compares the Malaysian case to the migration policies of Saudi Arabia, the United States, Germany, Singapore and Australia, recommended that the government address a major dissonance in its foreign labour policy: Malaysia makes it extremely difficult for the entry of professional expatriates, thus depriving the country of global talents, while allowing near uninhibited influx of unskilled labour.

We are indeed in a dilemma.

The unseen economic engine

One in every five workers in Malaysia is a foreigner. — Reuters picTo date, Malaysia’s workforce is estimated at about 11.3 million (Bernama, 200, while documented foreign workers account for 2.2 million, of which an estimated 380,000 are women working as domestic helpers. In addition to that, it is estimated that we have one million to 2.5 million undocumented workers.

In a nutshell, one in every five workers in Malaysia is a foreigner.

Undeniably, this cheap and unskilled labour force made our economic growth possible. However, the over-reliance on that does not augur well for the economy in the long term. Low wages for foreign labour means that employers prefer them to locals thus diminishing job opportunities for the latter.

More importantly, this has also made the companies too complacent to move up the value-added ladder.

Meanwhile, systematic leakage has led to untold suffering for many migrants. Not all illegal workers come willingly undocumented. Most are given hollow promises back in their home countries in terms of wage and type of employment, only to be disappointed when they arrive here. Some are given different sets of contracts in two places, while some do not even receive proper documents at all. Cheated and desperate, these workers often end up taking the “3D” jobs — dangerous, difficult and dirty (some would add demeaning to the list) — such as construction work, domestic work and waste collection.

But who else are willing to fill these uncelebrated occupations? The locals?

In fact, the real impact of foreign labour on local (un)employment is debatable. This can be seen in a statement by Human Resources Minister Datuk S. Subramaniam, who said it was not true that foreign labour stole jobs from locals; in fact, the opposite was more correct, which is that the multinational companies would have left the country if not for them.

Foreign labour is, and will continue to be, part and parcel of our economy. It is not an exaggeration to say that we need it and that our economic engine cannot work without it. One can argue that having labour-intensive industries is not a problem in itself. For example, Singapore, despite being a high-end industrial country, still imports a large number of low-skilled workers for low-end jobs. The key point would be how the government manages the foreign labour, in order for the industries and local employees to move up the value chain.

Regardless of what future human resources policy the country undertakes, it is a hard fact that foreign workers are here to stay. But are we willing to acknowledge their presence and contribution? Will we pause to ponder whether the way we treat them, human beings like us, is fair?

“They are an integral part of our economic engine, but are treated with complete disrespect,” laments social worker James Lochhead, the chairman of Jump (Jaringan Utara Migrasi dan Pelarian), an NGO network working on migrant worker and refugee issues in the northern region of Malaysia.

Meeting a fellow human being

Riding down the highway at Batu Maung, I cannot help but be amazed by recent developments in the area. “See how much progress Penang has made,” I whisper to myself, as if my Penangite ego needs any more boosting. The car stops in front of a luxury homes construction site. Soon, a tanned man greets us from across the road.

We are here to meet Om, a Myanmarese worker who is seeking help from Kevin, a welfare officer from the Penang Office Human Development (POHD) and his colleagues from Jump, claiming exploitation by his employer.

A father of a two-year-old girl, Om left for Malaysia with his friends over four years ago so that his family would have a better life with his monthly remittances of RM400, the equivalent of B$118,000. “In Myanmar, the average worker like me earns (B$)3000 a month. To buy a cup of tea is (B$)266; a full chicken costs (B$)4,000.” Those from Om’s village are mainly rubber tappers.

In impressively fluent Bahasa Malaysia, the 38-year-old plaster worker tells us about the unfulfilled promise of his employer. According to Om, the workers are given lower wages than was agreed upon. When they voice their concerns, the supervisor stops coming to the construction site for five days, rendering them jobless and helpless. Recently, there has been a surge of cheap, illicit drug use among his co-workers, who are a mix of Myanmarese, Indonesians and Bangladeshis. We soon find out to our shock that there are only two toilets catering for 300 workers at the site, and most of the workers choose to sleep in the half-constructed bungalows. The make-shift “housing” provided by the employers is often too cramped.

Malaysia is signatory to the Asean Declaration on the Protection and Pro-motion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. Article 8 states that governments shall “promote fair and appropriate employment protect-ion, payment of wages, and adequate access to decent working and living conditions for migrant workers”.

In 2009, Jump organised the “Right to redress” campaign, based on the perception that every human being is entitled to the protection and enhancement of basic human rights. It laid down five major components which state that migrants have the right to have their complaints heard; the right to stay with legal status while pursuing their claims; the right to seek temporary employment while their cases are being heard; the right to be given timely adjudication, and the right to enforceable compensation when it is awarded by the court.

Kevin was assigned to serve the migrant workers as part of his training for priesthood. Initially reluctant,

Kevin has now established a simple yet mind-boggling philosophy about his work. “What makes a person a person? Human beings need to be provided with basic amenities to sustain themselves. What makes them smaller than us? As long as we need them to work for us, we should give them their basic social rights in return — or else, we’d be turning into a slave economy.”

In the same tone, his colleague Joachim thinks that the locals do not treat migrant workers as human beings, but only as workers. My personal reading is that they are not even treated as workers, but as tireless automatons. Workers have more say over their fate than these migrants do.

A foreign worker from India works is pictured working in a barber shop. — Reuters picThe legal irony

In Malaysia, migrants matters theoretically come under the Provision of Employment Act; foreign workers are entitled to overtime, rest days and other worker benefits. However, many reports have shown that though penned in black and white, the lack of enforcement and bureaucratic neglect has led to these conditions being ignored.

Our existing migrant workers policy also highly favours the employer. When workers want to lodge a report against their employers, they can do so at the Labour Department. Not only does the workers’ understandable incompetence in the national language lengthen the infamously long bureaucratic process, the Labour Department will make a call to their employer to “get a better understanding” of the situation upon receiving the complaint. This potentially leads the employer to react by terminating the workers. Almost immediately, they become “illegal” workers without a permit and are therefore subject to deportation.

While migrant workers can apply for special stay permits after they are terminated, the approval of the permit is based on the discretion of Immigration officials. The workers have to pay RM100 to apply for 30 valid days and are prohibited from gaining employment in the meantime. According to Joachim, the officer-in-charge of the Diocesan Migrant Ministry (DMM) of POHD, which is part of Jump, it is common for cases to take longer than 30 days to resolve. Hence, the workers are forced to go through the same application process again (and pay again). It is not viable for the workers to go back to their home country either, due to the high cost of flights. In the end, most workers choose the lesser of two evils and drop the case altogether. The lack of legal assistance is also a common problem for migrant workers, who cannot afford to pursue their case.

“The system is in fact a race between the employers and workers, and the one who can last longer will be the winner,” Joachim says.

The Immigration Department is also known for its habit of mobilising the voluntary Rela force to crack down on undocumented workers. Alleged harassment by Immigration/Rela officials at detention camps is not uncommon. The condition at these camps is also far from satisfactory.

In 2009, the home minister reported to Parliament that a total of 2,571 deaths of detainees in prisons, rehabilitation centres and Immigration detention centres was recorded between 1999 and 2008. Besides, special courts set up by the government in the camps to address worker grievances have long been condemned by the Malaysia Bar Council for not making certain that workers understood charges and processes against them in their own language, and not providing them with sufficient legal counsel.

POHD has been working with migrant workers since 2001. The social service arm of the Penang Catholic Diocesan Centre started innocently to assist foreigners, but soon realised the magnitude of their needs. Volunteers found themselves taking on more tasks than they’d expected. POHD receives an average of 30–35 complaints per month, of which about 10 cases will involve legal processes. The increasing need has forced POHD to undergo a shift, from handling cases to training more volunteers to be case-handlers. “We wish to fill the gap between the migrant workers and the Labour Department,” says Joachim. One highly motivated social worker actually took up a law degree so that he could help the migrants workers in a bigger way.

Criminals? Who?

Since August 2006, the recruitment of migrant workers has been done largely through outsourcing. In fact, companies that hire less than 50 foreign workers are required to use an agency. There is no clear system regulating these agencies, nor are there legal provisions for better accountability. The outsourcing process relies only on a binding contract between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the companies. Thus, any breach of contract between the two parties is resolved between them; the migrant workers’ interests are not necessarily protected.

Up to 2008, Malaysia reportedly had 277 recruitment agencies in operation. In the Amnesty International Report 2009, the government was said to be “facilitating” the exploitation of migrant workers through loose regulation of outsourcing recruitment companies, abusive labour laws and policies, and unjust practices such as allowing employers to confiscate workers’ passports.

Cases of corruption further worsen the fate of the workers. Om testified that he paid RM1,000 at the Thai border in order to pass into Malaysia. One should be reminded that such sums of money could be all these migrant workers have, after mortgaging their homes and property or taking loans from illegal moneylenders. “They took a life-changing risk to come here; for some there is no turning back,” says Kevin, recounting the case of a Bangladeshi worker he had met.

Somehow, it seems that migrant workers are not treated as only a workers’ issue, but as a national security problem as well. Migrant workers are often seen as potential criminals by the authorities. Perhaps it is this perception that leads to a division of power over the issue between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Human Resources; the former is given enforcement authority while the latter handles complaints from the workers.

James says the claim that migrants workers are often criminals is unfair and without basis. “Statistics show that only two per cent of crimes are committed by foreigners, but they make up 30 per cent of the prison population in Malaysia.” This estimate was arrived at by the Malaysian Bar Council, and also reported by the Fair Labour Association (FLA) in 2008.

Many NGOs have urged the government to stop viewing migrant workers as a security threat and to allow the Ministry of Human Resources to liaise between the agencies, such as the Home Ministry. Many steps can be taken by the government to keep the situation under control. For one, a system should be in place to monitor the outsourced recruitment agencies. In fact, outsourcing companies could be removed and recruitment done in a “government to government” manner instead. Another concrete step would be to legalise a standardised contract for the workers, as has been done in Singapore and Hong Kong, to curb contract fraud.

A 24/7 job

Indonesian domestic helpers wait to be processed at an immigration terminal. — Reuters picInterestingly enough, the foreign domestic helpers that we employ at home are not recognised under the Employment Act. This means that they are not entitled to employee benefits. Most foreign domestic helpers in Malaysia, the “kakaks” in many homes, work 24/7.
And why is she not given a day off every week?

She will run away. She will take our money and never return. She will mix around with other maids and learn tricks about being lazy. She will mess around with men out there, and what if she got pregnant? She might even contract communicable diseases! These are some of the many excuses employers give to deprive their workers of their right to a rest day.

One wonders if one of the worst long-term effects of a sustained plural society like Malaysia’s is not anomie towards those outside of one’s own race. “Others” are somehow different from us, and do not need, expect or appreciate the rights that we would not want to be without. Empathy disappears.

The fact that Malaysia has the highest incidence of runaway maids in the region speaks volumes for about the treatment domestic helpers suffer here. Other issues include physical and psychological abuse, withholding of passports by employers, and the non-provision of a minimum wage.

Many reports of violations led the Indonesian government, the biggest domestic maid exporter to Malaysia, to ban their workers from travelling to the country last June. A much anticipated memorandum of understanding on migrant workers between the Malaysian and Indonesian governments was signed in May, which allowed a day of rest per week for Indonesian maids and which recognised their right to retain their passport during employment.

Welfare matters

Melanie started her religious mission in Penang with a strong belief that it is a calling from her God. Yet, when she and her team from YWAM (Youth with a Mission) Penang faced the reality of the life of migrant workers, they realised their mission had to go beyond the issue of faith.

“We realised it is a justice issue that our advocacy needs to address,” she says. YWAM then mobilised its volunteers to serve the workers regardless of their religious background. With the support of Penang Christian Medical Society, YWAM organised six mobile medical clinics per year to bring medical aid to the workers, on their doorstep.

There are also plans to establish schools within worker and refugee communities. Indeed, there are many social issues to address: healthcare, housing, education of children and, not least of all, moral support for these workers to help them adjust to life in a foreign land. “A small thing like a social gathering with the workers actually means a lot to them,” Joachim says.

Small step, big move

What then can Penang as a whole do for the migrants?

Under our highly centralised governance system, the state government is rather powerless. The issue of migrants falls largely under the purview of federal ministries. Nevertheless, the state government can play an intermediary role by bringing the relevant parties together for roundtable meetings. Support for and advocacy to improve the welfare of the workers can also be initiated by the state government. According to Joachim, small acts like these have been initiated.

As for awareness about the issue, he thinks it is still unsatisfactorily low in Penang. “That would be the main agenda of Jump – to create public awareness. Ultimately, we need to value them, as humans and as workers.”

* This article is taken from the June issue of “Penang Economic Monthly”, published by the Socio-economic and Environmental Institute (SERI), Penang, now out at all good bookshops and newsagents.