Deplorable situation of migrant workers: Come on, ‘Madani’ ministers, show us your moral compass!

Take immediate steps to tackle the ongoing exploitation and bullying of migrant workers under the current system

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The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) is bemused by the jubilation in “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government circles over Malaysia’s recent upgrade from the “Tier 2 watch list” to “Tier 2” in the Trafficking in Persons report issued by the US Department of State.

Listen guys, we have to be consistent. Malaysia strongly disagrees with the US stance on the horrendous genocide in Gaza. We have maintained a non-aligned stance on the conflict in Ukraine. And we urge restraint and negotiations in the handling of Taiwan.

We have serious differences of opinion with the US ruling elite on several major international issues. This implies we do not quite trust their objectivity and honesty. Yet, when they say they are promoting us in the Trafficking in Persons report, we are ecstatic!

Come on, do we not have our own moral compass – our sense of right and wrong? Do we need the US or any other Western power to give us brownie points? Didn’t the colonial period end six decades ago? Where is our sense of self-worth?

Listen up, Madani government, Malaysia still has many unsolved issues regarding the import of migrant workers. These need to be looked into seriously, whether or not the US applauds us!

Let me enumerate a couple of them.

Private agencies making huge profits

The import of migrant workers by private entities has led to a situation where literally thousands of migrant workers are languishing in crowded accommodation without regular work or income.

The private agencies bringing in these workers collect, illegally, up to RM20,000 per worker. In the last year, over 400,000 Bangladeshi workers were imported this way. Do the maths – there are huge profits being made!

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Meanwhile, the imported workers are distraught. They not only have insufficient money to feed themselves. They are also painfully aware of the pressures their families are facing in their home villages when the people who loaned them the funds to come to Malaysia ask for repayments.

The march of 170 Bangladeshi workers to make a police report in Pengerang in December 2023 is just the tip of the iceberg. Several thousand others are in a similar predicament. This has not yet been tackled systematically.

Many groups have suggested that the import of foreign labour should be on a government-to-government basis without the intermediation of for-profit companies. For some reason, the Madani government has been reluctant to implement this obvious solution.      

Unequal power relationship

A very unequal power relationship exists between the migrant workers and their employers. The bosses usually hold the workers’ passports (though they are not supposed to).

The bosses just have to identify the spokespersons of the migrant workers, cancel their work permits and get them deported. This will ensure that the remaining workers shut up and fall in line.

Workers who reach the end of their tether, just abscond and look for jobs in the informal sector. But then they are unprotected. They cannot lodge a complaint against their boss as they are now ‘illegally’ in the country.

The presence of some two to three million ‘undocumented’ workers (including many who became ‘undocumented’ after entering Malaysia legally) reduces employment prospects for the poorest 20% of Malaysians and depresses the wage floor significantly.

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Groups advocating for migrant rights have called for the granting of new work permits to migrant workers who have lost their jobs because they made a complaint to the Labour Department.

If workers can exercise their right to redress and have an avenue to sustain themselves until their case is resolved, then the necessity of absconding and entering the non-formal sector is much reduced. This will greatly help both the migrant workers and the poorest 20% of Malaysians.

A portion of the RM2.5bn levy collected annually from migrant workers could be set aside to pay the National Legal Aid Foundation to represent these migrant workers in the Labour Department or in court. A team of translators, also paid for by levy collections, should also be made available so that foreign workers are able to access justice.

Sadly, none of these recommendations has been acted upon. Yet, we are so jubilant that the US Department of State has patted us on the back! Isn’t this pathetic?

Come on Madani ministers, show us you have your own moral compass. Take immediate steps to address the ongoing exploitation and bullying of migrant workers under the current system.

We have invited these migrant workers to Malaysia to help us develop our economy. We must treat them as our guests and, above all, as human beings – not as a commodity to profit from!

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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Angeline Loh
Angeline Loh
27 Jun 2024 10.02pm

Thank you Dr. Kumar. Your description of the treatment of migrant workers as a “commodity” is totally accurate. However, that is the same perception of all workers, regardless of status, by many employers. The profiteering from this legalized human trafficking has also caused too many migrant workers to be brought into the country without any real jobs available. They end up detained in our Immigration Detention Centers or locked up in inhuman “storage facilities” by the agents, ill-treated, abused and starved for no purpose. These, like other undocumented migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers are criminalised by our government via the immigration authorities and others, adding to their suffering. Is this Malaysia Madani?