How do migrant workers end up undocumented in Malaysia?

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Photo: Hasnoor Hussain/Al Jazeera

We need to look at our own shortcomings in the way we treat migrant workers. JD Lovrenciear writes.

The recent report about Malaysia’s migrant workers’ situation amid the coronavirus pandemic published by an international news outlet should concern all of us.

The ongoing police investigations of the representatives of the implicated media and interviewees have drawn mixed reactions.

Whatever one’s opinion may be, we must be ethically rooted. The following truths must gain traction in our society’s debates.

First, we must have the courage and humility to take stock of the weaknesses and shortcomings that affect migrant workers in Malaysia.

There are employers who abandon their foreign workers and leave them in the lurch. Without an employer to renew their work permits and with zero income, a migrant worker is deemed undocumented and “illegal”. Who is at fault?

Second, we have among us people who ill-treat their workers. The litany of gross human rights abuses these past decades includes the following:

  • Denial of weekly mandatory off days
  • Workers’ passports withheld by employers
  • Unlawful salary deductions
  • Unpaid overtime wages
  • Physical and verbal abuses rained on workers by abusive employers and their family members
  • Sexual harassment
  • Non-observance of labour laws including permitted work hours

There are many more instances of violations of workers’ rights, human rights and human dignity.

In some cases, unable to tolerate the abuses, migrant workers flee from their employers. And so they end up undocumented, without a passport, when their employers lodge a report. Who is at fault?

Third, it is unimaginable how a foreign migrant who is hired and comes into the country, having fulfilled all the sending and receiving nation’s stringent conditions, can end up “illegal”.

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But we know all the likely reasons for this quagmire.

While there are millions of workers who do not regret coming here, there are also those who have either broken the laws of this nation or were forced to break the laws – not out of their own free will, not deliberately.

We have to purge our country of all the alleged wrongdoings by law enforcers, employers and middlemen involved in this recruitment chain.

For as long as our own citizens have contributed to the plight of the migrant population in the country, we must have the courage to unleash the full power of the rule of law on these offenders without fear or favour – even if it involves some quarters within the barricades of power and control.

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