Migrant workers or slaves?

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migrantsThere are growing trends restricting the freedom of movement of foreigners working in Malaysia and Thailand, observes Caram Asia. Both governments should take concrete action to grant foreign workers freedom of association.

Freedom to move and go about doing things without controls is something every human being aspires to have. This basic human right would be stamped out for some 2.8 million foreign workers in Malaysia and Thailand should governments confine them to their ramshackle living quarters.

Caram Asia is deeply vexed with recent announcements made by the Malaysian government and Thai provincial governments proposing measures to limit movement of foreign workers within the compound of their employers. For these foreign workers who toil at jobs that locals usually opt out of, they would not only be working long hours in the same area but would also be eating, sleeping and spending every other waking hour near their work stations.   

The latest announcement in April comes from the governor of Chiang Mai who said the rule is aimed at maintaining peace and order in the province. The rule will ban foreign workers from riding motorcycles or leaving their designated working areas or their employers’ homes after 8 pm. More than five foreign workers are also not allowed to congregate at one place. He expects the draft to be enforced soon.

In February 2007, Malaysia’s Home Ministry proposed that all foreign workers be confined to their kongsi (work areas) and have their movements monitored by the management to prevent them from committing crimes. Prior to such a proposal, the Inspector General of Police had reported (NST, 17 Feb 2007) that foreign workers were accountable for about 2 per cent of crime cases in 2006. In the name of crime prevention, this proposal is expected to be tabled as a bill in Parliament without prior consultation with civil society organisations.

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Until today, Caram Asia as a regional network of 23 partners covering 15 countries in Asia working on migration issues has received no details on such proposal from the Malaysian government despite its questionable rationale. Based on the 2 per cent statistics of crime committed by foreign workers, theoretically speaking, even if all foreign workers are imprisoned, 98 per cent of crimes would still occur.

The security reason cited for such plans to restrict foreign workers is a mirror of discrimination against foreign workers. It is an attempt to imprison all foreign workers for crimes that the majority of them have not been found guilty or that have not yet even happened.

Outright violation

Sadly, this is just the latest spate of developments after four southern provinces of Thailand including Phuket, Surat Thani, Ranong and Rayong (since December 2006) introduced legislation that singled out a group of migrant workers from Burma, Laos and Cambodia. This is outright discrimination based on race and country of origin.
 
Citing similar security reasons as the Malaysian case, this legislation includes a ban on public assembly of more than five persons without prior permission, a ban on the use of mobile phones, motorcycles and cars, a curfew for migrant workers who have to be in their dormitories from 8 pm to 6 am.

All these restrictions violate Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which  stipulates freedom of movement of the individual as a basic human right.  Both Malaysia and Thailand voted in favour of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, Malaysia has a seat on the Human Rights Council. Yet, are both governments seriously committed to upholding human rights?

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Moreover, both governments are members of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Mere membership of ILO entails that the principles of Core International Labour Standard (ILS) must be realised. Among the Core Labour Standards are the Freedom of Association and the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (C 87) and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (C111).

Malaysia is also a State Party to 28 ILO conventions, amongst which is the Migration of Employment Convention (Revised) 1949 (C97) pertaining to equal treatment of migrant workers. Malaysia’s ratification of this convention means it should “apply treatment no less favourable that that which applies to their own nationals in respect to a number of matters, including conditions of employment, freedom of association and social security”, as stated in the convention. Restricting the freedom of movement and association of foreign workers is already an outright violation.

We urge governments to halt such attempts to legalise the current illegal practice of wrongful confinement of employees, which is the condition of work of a slavery system. Besides fulfilling its obligations to international treaties signed, the Malaysia and Thai governments should further ratify additional ILO conventions and recognise equal opportunities for foreign workers seeking to make a living. Both governments should take concrete action to grant foreign workers freedom of association, which will be a measure to prevent exploitation at work and a platform to safeguard the welfare and well being of foreign workers, who contribute to economic development and income for both sending and receiving countries. 

CARAM Asia is an open network of organisations, consisting of 23 member partners covering 15 countries in Asia. The CARAM network works with Asian migrants globally and with the aim of creating an enabling environment to empower migrants, their families and communities. 

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