Malaysia: Refusing to resolve migrant woes

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The 7-8 December 2009 ACMW Drafting Committee Meeting on a Framework Instrument on the Protection and Promotion of Migrant Workers’ Rights in Kuala Lumpur ended in deadlock. The Malaysian government continues to oppose the stance taken by its three Asean ACMW partners (Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines) to include provisions to protect the rights of all migrant workers and their families.


Aliran views the government’s refusal to cooperate in protecting the human and labour rights of documented and undocumented migrant workers and their families as a refusal to solve the festering immigration and labour problems in the country.

The BN government’s overall negative policies, actions and attitudes do nothing to relieve ongoing contentions in Malaysia’s dealings with other Asean partners, particularly over its treatment of migrant workers.

The government appears to have forgotten the labour shortage and slowdown in economic activity after the 2004-2005 amnesty for the repatriation of ‘undocumented’ immigrants, particularly those from Indonesia which numbered over a million.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) says there are 2.1 million undocumented migrants in the country and supports the institution of such an amnesty (Qatar News Agency, 6 December 2009). What will this sudden return of labour do to Malaysia’s economy? Is there a local labour force equal in strength ready to step in immediately to fill the gap left by the mass expulsion of migrant workers? We would expect better from the MTUC than this kind of recklessness.

The denial of human and labour rights and the harsh crackdowns and detention of documented and undocumented migrant workers remain a bone of contention between Malaysia and a majority of our Asean labour-sending neighbours whose citizens come here to seek employment. Piecemeal bilateral deals with separate migrant labour-sending countries will not do anything for Malaysia’s image in Asean or in the wider international community.

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The human rights violations committed against foreign workers in harsh crackdowns by security enforcers like Rela will only aggravate the sense of grievance felt by other Asean nations. It will only widen the existing rift – arising from the apparently unequal bargaining power – between the majority of seven migrant labour-sending and the three receiving countries (Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei) that are in a minority; Thailand falls in both categories.

The drafting of this new regional framework instrument is a golden opportunity to improve Malaysia’s immigration and labour policies. The instrument could help to harmonise Malaysia’s diplomatic relations with the majority of our closest neighbours, who are willing and ready to adopt a more positive and progressive common stance on human and labour rights protection and promotion in the region.

Further, the ebbs and flows of available labour – dependent on the Home Affairs Ministry’s perceptions of national security concerns – are too unpredictable to be of economic benefit to the manufacturer sector, which needs a stable labour force. Industry incurs large losses when faced with unplanned and sudden work stoppages due to the arrest and detention of migrant workers. Cross-border human trafficking will continue to thrive as long as no proper immigration control system recognising different situations of migrants is established. Mass expulsions are a simplistic panacea to complex problems arising from the mismanagement and disorganisation of unplanned migration policies.

The regularisation of irregular economic and other migrants (including asylum seekers and refugees) can only save the country in economic, political as well as social terms. The protection and promotion of human and labour rights for local and migrant workers can bring multiple benefits to the nation.

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The government must cease this insular and retrogressive attitude if Malaysia’s aspirations to achieve developed country status are to be realised. “Wawasan 2020” is certainly a very long way off if we remain several steps behind our less developed neighbors who are proving more progressive and forward thinking in dealing with the complexities of labour mobilisation in the region.  

Aliran urges the Government to relinquish its present hard-line opposition to affording protection and coverage for the rights of all migrant workers and their families. The government should fulfil its obligations under Cedaw and the CRC, the Asean Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of Migrant Workers Rights, the Asean Charter, the Bangkok Declaration on Irregular Migration 1999 and the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work 1998 that all Asean member states supported, in addition to its general international obligations as a member of the UN Human Rights Council and United Nations.

In addition, the Government should consider ratifying the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Aliran fully supports the call by international organisations and civil societies across the region for a “people centred Asean” over a wealth-driven ASEAN. The peoples of Asean are the region’s greatest wealth.

Aliran Executive Committee
International Migrants Day
18 December 2009

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