Recalibrating the labour recalibration programme

Tenaganita demands a firm commitment from the government not to use undocumented workers as ATMs once more

Photograph: The roads travelled for work - Women Migrant Workers in Singapore and Malaysia by UN Women Gallery/Flickr

On 22 April 2020, the home affairs minister and the human resources minister issued a joint media statement announcing a number of changes to the labour recalibration programme for the hiring of undocumented migrant workers, which was first announced in November 2020.

It is heartening to note that the two ministries are finally collaborating closely on this very important issue.

However, based on lessons that should have been learnt from experience, the changes to the labour recalibration programme which were announced require greater scrutiny and fine-tuning to ensure the success of the programme.

When the recalibration programme was initially announced on 13 November 2020, Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin had stated that it would be implemented by the immigration and labour departments, without the involvement of vendors and third parties.

This was reiterated on 27 November 2020 by Human Resources Minister M Saravanan, who stated that monitoring is being conducted regularly to ensure that the implementation of the illegal immigrant recalibration programme (sic) is not manipulated by any irresponsible party and that legal action would be taken against irresponsible parties under Section 7 of the Private Employment Agencies Act 1981 (Act 246), which provides for a maximum fine of RM200,000 or jail not exceeding three years or both.

However, according to the changes announced on 7 April 2021, the government has now officially “involved” licensed private employment agencies in the labour recalibration programme to “hasten” (mempercepatkan) the process.

This about-turn in policy begs an explanation. Is it an admission that the immigration and labour departments have been found to be incapable of implementing the programme on their own? How and when did this realisation dawn upon the two ministers concerned? What are the factors that have hindered the programme since it was launched five months ago?

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In November 2020, the home minister had stated that 250,000 people are expected to be registered under the combined labour recalibration and repatriation recalibration programmes.

Five months later, with just two months left, 145,000 persons or 58% of the expected number have registered under the programmes, out of which only 71,500 have registered under the labour recalibration programme for hiring. There is no information on how many of those registered for hiring have successfully obtained their work permits, though unofficially the number is reported to be dismal.

How exactly are private employment agencies expected to improve matters? What can these agencies do that the combined forces of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Human Resources are incapable of?

What is more perplexing is that prospective employers are still required to be personally present at the Immigration Department to carry out all the relevant transactions. Unless clear, unequivocal answers are provided to the public, there is reason to believe that the recalibration programme will turn out to be yet another debacle where undocumented migrant workers lose their hard-earned money to unscrupulous agents and corrupt officials.

There are well-grounded reasons for scepticism and fears – based on the experience of many similar “legalisation-rehiring exercises” in previous years – that this programme too will not achieve its objective of providing legal work permits to undocumented migrant workers in the country. There have been numerous reports about how an estimated 500,000 undocumented workers lost millions of ringgit and lost their passports, which they had handed over to the vendors during the previous rehiring programme.

The current labour recalibration programme is now open to undocumented migrant workers who had registered under the previous rehiring programme and 6P programme, but had not received their work-permits (telah mendaftar bagi Progam Rehiring dan 6P tetapi … tidak menerima Pas Lawatan Kerja Sementera).

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This at least is an indirect admission by the government of the failures of previous rehiring programmes under different names. This tacit admission, however, is insufficient. At the very least, even if their money is not returned to them, these victims of previous rehiring programmes should not be required to pay any fees or levies and instead be automatically given approval to be hired. Alternatively, the money should be recouped from the three private sector vendors which were appointed by the government to “assist” in the last rehiring programme.

If indeed there are compelling reasons for involving private companies – and these reasons should be made public in the interests of transparency – there should be clear guidelines on their role, and their fees should be capped, monitored and enforced strictly.

The appointed agencies should not be permitted to subcontract their services and use ‘runners’, as was rampant in the past; in the event they do so, they should be held fully responsible for any losses, deception, or exploitation suffered by the undocumented migrant workers.

A transparent, efficient and independent redress mechanism should be put in place to promptly deal with grievances from undocumented migrant workers (and employers) about shortcomings in the implementation of the programme.

Bearing in mind that the primary aim of the labour recalibration programme is to assist critical industries to recover, the total costs for rehiring should be kept to a minimum so that employers are not burdened and pass the cost on to the migrant workers.

According to unofficial sources, the cost of rehiring a worker under the labour recalibration programme is RM7,000 in the non-plantation sector, which would be a heavy burden on many companies that are already in dire straits at this time of Covid. For the worker, it is equivalent of at least four months’ salary.

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It is unconscionable to exploit undocumented migrant workers – or any workers, for that matter – to swell the coffers of the government and private employment agencies, as well as to inflate the bank accounts of cronies of politicians, which has been the usual practice in the past.

Yes, the industries are badly affected due to the lack of labour; therefore Tenaganita welcomes the expansion of scope of the labour recalibration programme as a means of strengthening the economy; however, we would once again urge the authorities to learn from the mistakes of the past – which have been enumerated before and bear no repetition here – to ensure clarity, consistency and credibility in the policies and practices in dealing with this issue.

The government and private agencies must not take advantage of the desperation of the industries for the labour force, knowing that lots of money is being invested in this programme by the industries, companies and employers.

To be more inclusive in our initiatives, Tenaganita would like to call for more consultations with these two ministries together with concerned industries, diplomatic missions and civil society organisations which work with migrant workers at the grassroots level on how best to develop and implement the programme.

As a way forward, Tenaganita demands a firm commitment from the government that these workers are not used as ATMs once more. The government, along with the private agencies and industries, must stop using these workers as a means of getting rich and stop making them the tools of profit.

Glorene A Das is executive director of Tenaganita (Women’s Force)

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