Plantations and Commodities Minister Johari Abdul Ghani has called for punitive action against employers abusing the recruitment of migrant labour into the country.
He proposed the employer be fined up to RM30,000 for each affected worker.
He was reacting to the cheating of 171 documented migrant workers brought into the country by an agent who guaranteed them jobs that did not exist.
The issue blew up and embarrassed the government when, in desperation after being jobless and unpaid for three months, the 171 workers walked 10km to a Johor police station to lodge reports. Unfortunately, but not unpredictably, they were all arrested.
This is not an isolated occurrence. Recently, Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) activists were involved in helping a handful of migrant workers file a complaint at the Labour Department for not being given jobs after they arrived in Malaysia five months ago.
Altogether, there were about 130 workers, but only a few dared to come forward to complain. These workers, who were documented and held employment contracts, had paid about RM25,000 each for employment here.
PSM supports the minister’s call to act sternly against employers and agents involved but asserts that the government must tackle the persistent problems associated with labour migration in a holistic way in order to see real change.
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The usual official approach – dealing with problems as they arise, ad hoc, in a piecemeal manner – does nothing to prevent problems from recurring. Rather it only spawns new tricks and strengthens the labour migration underworld.
It must be recognised that many of the problems of labour migration stem from the absence of a comprehensive policy.
This idea of the need to regulate labour migration is neither new nor radical. The 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020) addressed the issue in an insightful manner and offered practical ideas on how to properly manage labour migration.
An earlier government saw the urgency of this issue and appointed an independent committee on the management of foreign workers, which made recommendations. But there has been no action to set things right.
A comprehensive policy on labour migration should essentially be based on the following principles :
- The objective of labour migration should be to complement local labour and not compete with it
- No private entity should be involved in any part of the process of hiring and managing migrant labour. (The payments collected from migrant workers are huge and are an easy source of money. For companies licensed to importing labour, it is an irresistible incentive to bring in as many workers as possible, regardless of manpower needs)
- A portion of the money earned from levies (amounting to RM2-3bn annually) should be channelled into providing social services such as healthcare for migrant workers
- The rights of migrant workers as human beings and workers should be respected
The need to formulate a comprehensive policy is long overdue. The need to remove the profit motive from labour migration is urgent.
The current dysfunctional system only enriches several politically well-connected individuals while victimising migrant workers and disadvantaging the local workforce.
Does the government have the political will to bring about change?