MTUC should be fighting for all workers

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MTUC should be fighting for all workers rights, local/migrant, documented/undocumented – not proposing ideas on how to get rid of a certain class of workers, writes Charles Hector.

There are about 2.4 documented migrant workers and an estimated 5 million undocumented migrants – and the truth of the matter is that most of these undocumented migrants are working with Malaysian employers.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) suggests an amnesty to facilitate the easy return of the migrants to their home country, with their home country made to bear the cost.

But a better solution may be a registration exercise of undocumented migrants – whereby employers of these migrants are given an amnesty, i.e. that they would not be charged for employing undocumented migrant workers, provided they register these workers immediately within three months (or some other reasonable period), and all these workers will be documented. This is a practice that Thailand uses and more recently the Malaysian government did a similar exercise for Sabah. If they can do it for Sabah, then they surely can do the same for Peninsular Malaysia.

Whilst most of the undocumented migrants are really here for work and a means to earn an income to support themselves and their dependents back home, there are a certain group of migrants that are here to escape an oppressive regime back in their home country.

People from Burma would fall into this category: it is estimated that there may be about 600,000 undocumented migrants from Burma in Malaysia. Some would take steps and go to the UNHCR to try to apply for refugee status, whilst many others – who really would be asylum seekers and refugees – may not proceed to the UNHCR. The reason for this, is that what they really are seeking is temporary asylum in Malaysia (and Thailand) and they have a strong desire to return to Burma when democracy returns. Obtaining refugee status from the UNHCR would mean that they could get sent to some third country – which many may not really want.

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Further, the UNHCR is overloaded with work, and has no capacity to process all these migrants from Burma. There are also certain procedures of the UNHCR that are problematic, and there is generally a certain bias towards certain groups. There were also rumours of corruption, which I heard has been dealt with by UNHCR..

Thus, I would propose that Malaysia carry out a registration exercise for undocumented migrants. The obligation should be with the employer to come forward and register their workers. As I mentioned, for workers from Burma, a special procedure may be required.

The other group of migrants that may fall into this category would be those from Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines.

The present system of sourcing migrant workers seems not to be working. Why? Maybe there is alleged corruption at the level of the agents, and some workers really cannot afford to pay these agents and come into Malaysia as documented workers. Maybe, the government should study this – and maybe there should be a change of policy.

* All foreigners coming to Malaysia shall be first given a three-month social visit visa. The migrant then can go and find work, if they can. Once they find a job, then the employer shall within two weeks take steps to inform the Labour Department, and make the relevant application to get a ‘work permit’ for their worker. If the worker leaves the employer, then the employer shall within two weeks inform the Labour Department. The worker’s work permit shall not be revoked for a period of two months, and if during that time he finds a job, then his/her work permit shall be varied to reflect the new employer. [This method will cut off the agents, and all those ‘in-between steps’, and it will work]

* For refugees, one option is that the UNHCR be required to provide for board and lodging whilst the migrant is waiting to be sent to a third country. Now, apparently the  UNHCR processes the migrants, gives them refugee status, hands them UN Refugee cards and tells them to wait. How can these ‘refugees’ survive – and naturally many will end up working to live. [In many places, refugees would be staying in refugee camps where their food and board are taken care of – hence no reason to work and earn… but not in Malaysia. Why?] If not, then Malaysia should also provide for a ‘refugee work permit’ so that these refugees can work while they wait to be sent to a third country.

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I am rather shocked by the MTUC’s statement, as it seems more concerned about getting them out of Malaysia. Let’s not forget that these undocumented migrants are also workers most of the time. MTUC should be suggesting things that benefit workers – not a method to get rid of them from Malaysia.

Further, some regimes like Burma (Union of Myanmmar) really are not bothered with these people from Burma. That is why our detention centres are packed with people from Burma. Secondly, it is foolish for those running away from an oppressive regime to even want to consider going back.

Even for the purely economic migrants, they took the risk and came over to Malaysia for a reason – to earn a living to support their families/dependents back home. So, why really would they want to go back to their home country? There are no jobs waiting for them over there. And, even if they grab this opportunity for a free trip home, they would most likely be back here again. This is certainly not a good proposal or a solution to the undocumented migrant phenomena. [Undocumented migration is not a problem – it is really a very natural phenomenon and it has been happening from time immemorial – people move all over the world for work or for a better life. Hence, the question is how do we deal with this…for the benefit of all.]

Registration or documentation is good because it will protect the rights of the worker. But whether a person is documented or undocumented should never be an hindrance whatsoever for workers to claim their rights as workers. And MTUC should be fighting for the rights of all workers, documented or undocumented or refugee or… not calling for their eviction from Malaysia.

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The MTUC, as far as I know, is presently concerned about all workers, local or foreign, and that is why I am shocked by this statement issued by its vice-president, A Balasubramaniam. Maybe, the reporter got it wrong…

From Malaysiakini, 6 Dec 2009, MTUC: Declare amnesty for foreign workers

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) today called on the government to declare an amnesty to allow the estimated 2.1 million illegal foreign workers to leave the country.

Its vice-president, A Balasubramaniam said this was the best way to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country.
    
He said the last amnesty from 1 July 2004 to February 2005 was very successful, where 230,000 such workers left the country voluntarily.

He told Bernama that the MTUC had received hundreds of requests from these workers, especially those whose visas had expired, that they wanted to return to their country of origin.

However, the cost of getting the documentation was rather high and the workers could not afford it, he said.

It would benefit the country

He said it cost the workers a total of RM2,000 to get the papers to go back, and it included a fine of RM300 for overstaying, RM600 for airfare and RM1,100 for processing the application through specified agents.

Under an amnesty the workers need not pay anything as the cost of repatriation would be borne by their country.

Balasubramaniam said an amnesty would benefit the country as it would provide employment opportunities for the locals, reduce the number of detention camps, redeploy enforcement officers, lower the risk of the spread of communicable diseases and assist foreign workers from being exploited by local errant employers.

Besides these, Malaysia would also be able to earn the goodwill of workers organisations both at home and in the workers’ country of origin, he added.

 

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