The helpless remain hunted despite PR election gains

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So far, the opposition have held out little hope for migrant workers and refugees, observes Angeline Loh.

theSun daily, in a report on 4 July, announced a swell in the number of volunteers joining Rela. Rela number of members now stand at 520,000 Malaysian volunteers. Ordinary members are to be paid an allowance of RM4 an hour and platoon leaders RM5.80 an hour, an increment to be approved by the government. The government has allocated RM15 million to fund the ‘hunting down’ of undocumented migrants that ironically includes documented refugees recognised by the UN refugee agency.

Deputy Home Minister Chor Chee Heung (BN), in response to a supplementary question from Batu Gajah MP, Fong Po Kuan (DAP), announced that nine Rela officials had faced disciplinary action for abuse of power since last year. He went on to confidently announce that the Home Ministry had plans to upgrade the voluntary corps and  “accord its members more powers”. The Rela Bill is in the offing and to be tabled in Parliament to “ensure its effectiveness” and grant increased powers to this volunteer body under the purview of the Home Ministry and Immigration Department. The creation of Rela as a government department is being anticipated.

Why only nine?

The first question that came to mind was, why only nine Rela officers are being disciplined when it is common knowledge that Rela members have committed numerous violations of the human rights of migrants they arrest and detain and have violated the privacy rights of Malaysians without being questioned by any authority. Neither the Home Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Internal Security Ministry, the Defence Ministry nor the Police have publicly questioned these violations committed by Rela members, irrespective of their rank.

Secondly, what further powers can be given a body that appears to be unaccountable to any higher authority specifically dealing with national security. Neither the Police nor the Armed Forces in this country have any authority or say in the control or supervision of Rela. It looks like the Home Ministry has also set up its own “army” under the Emergency Ordinance 1996, which seems odd, as no citizen in this country really knows what the external threat to national security is.

The hypothesis that migrants and refugees are a threat to national security defies logic and reality when it is also common knowledge that a very small percentage of crime in the country can be attributed to migrants here. The Immigration Department and the media hype are much to blame for these negative misconceptions of a majority of migrants who are law abiding.

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Migrants enrich our country

Moreover, the reality is that migrants contribute to the economy of our country regardless of their legal status. Engaging in any legitimate economic activity contributes to the wealth of the country, increasing its GDP. Some migrants, even if undocumented, also contribute to the country’s GNP working in export industries. So how much of a threat are migrants and refugees to Malaysia, when they in fact enrich our country.

Another favourite argument, often proffered by government authorities dealing with immigration and foreign affairs, is the “Opening the Floodgates to Foreigners” argument. Their rationale is that treating migrants humanely and permitting them to ‘enjoy’ their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international law would only encourage migration en masse from neighbouring countries in Asean and elsewhere.

Yet, in reality, Malaysia continues to encourage migrant labour from other countries and continues to enter into agreements and MOUs regarding the import of migrant labour with countries far and wide. All this is being done without the necessary installation of an updated and well-organised immigration system or any well thought-out immigration policy, supported by humane immigration laws that take into account the existence of refugees and the crime of human trafficking committed across borders.

Citizens’ complaints that it is unfair that migrants should be accorded human rights and fundamental freedoms that they themselves are not permitted to enjoy reveal a misunderstanding of the principle that human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially the ‘non-derogable’ rights, should apply to citizens as well as non-citizens without discrimination of any kind. The problem here is not immigration legal status, but the restriction or denial of basic non-derogable human rights.

Therefore, the recognition of fundamental human rights of citizens by the government should mean that the basic human rights of any migrant should also be recognised, resulting in equality before the law as  stipulated in our Federal Constitution.

Trade unionists ignorant of their role

A part of the trade union movement also believes that migrant workers ‘steal’ jobs from locals. This perception, originating in age-old rhetoric first sung by trade unionists in western nations against migrant labour entering their countries, is defective and out-dated. Whilst one can sympathise with it on the basis that migrant labour is seen as cheaper than local labour and that there are a large number of graduates currently unemployed, the question is what the local trade unions themselves are doing about the situation.

What are the trade unions doing about the problem of human trafficking that feeds the vicious cycle of so-called ‘cheap labour’ more akin to slave labour? What constructive proposals have they made to ensure a level playing field for local and migrant labour that will in effect control the influx of migrant labour? This could prevent unscrupulous employment agents and out-sourcers from bringing in more migrant labour than there are jobs available. There would be no incidents of migrant workers being stranded at KLIA left high and dry by potential employers and agents and warehoused in depots merely to be deported to their home countries at taxpayers’ expense.

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On the very slim chance that a minimum wage was legalised in this country, it would serve to raise labour standards and make employers more selective of employees as it would encourage the selection of reliable labour that gave productive quality work – instead of perpetuating the current attitude of employers in certain sectors that shop floor labour is a disposable commodity. Since employers will be more inclined to put their money into quality workforces that would give them their money’s worth in productivity, the employment of migrant labour would also become more selective.

Thus, the market for migrant and local labour would become less like a ‘free for all’ where employers fight and undercut each other using fair and foul means to grab any labour that they deem costs them next to nothing.

The crux of the matter is that there is an urgent need to review and restructure current methods of employing migrant labour where the existence of too many middlemen encourage and perpetuate human trafficking in slave labour. The existing system of labour outsourcing and the usage of poorly regulated employment agencies leads to corruption and rampant human rights violations of those struggling to make a decent living here.

The trade unions are in a position to tackle these issues if their leaders realise and have the political will to work for all workers irrespective of immigration legal status. Is this too much to ask of our trade unions?

What is the Opposition doing?

If 8 March 2008 was a turning point for Malaysians, making us aware that people-driven change is possible, it must be realised that it is still a young process that is in danger of being short-lived if persistence dies out. Whether the five Pakatan Rakyat state governments have the initiative to show themselves to be markedly different from their BN predecessors remains to be seen.

The PR governments should be reminded that their 100 days probation-cum-honeymoon is virtually over. The post-election euphoria is fast fizzling out. If no change is made or seen to be made or is too slow in taking shape, disillusionment with the new PR State governments will set in faster than they expect. Excuses have their limit and being new to the job is fast becoming stale.

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So far, the PR governments have either acted too hastily and negatively on the issue of migrants and refugees or have done their level best to remain silent keeping the lid covered tightly on this issue. They have shown no intention or initiative to unravel the chaos or alleviate the human rights abuse despite the availability of information in the media, NGO sources and Parliamentary debate. They have neglected to ask the salient questions.

All they have done is to categorise migrants and refugees as a federal problem that state governments have no control over. Few opposition MPs have spoken up against the human rights violations committed against migrants and refugees. To migrants and refugees still under the oppression of the BN, the PR holds out nothing for them as the indifference to their plight continues. The PR also seems to maintain the perpetuation of the lie that migrants and refugees are a pest to be wiped out, by their silent consent to the uncontrolled actions and further empowerment of Rela. They have so far shown no wisdom in this matter nor realised the economic importance of this ostracised human resource. The urgency of the situation appears to have eluded them.

Despite so much talk of a multiracial Malaysia with the rising star of Anwar Ibrahim, communalism still underlies political thinking and attitude even in those apparently advocating multiracialism. Malaysians may have taken one step forward toward open-mindedness but are in danger of taking two steps back, retrogressing into closed-minded racial communalism and xenophobia.

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