Malaysia is one of Asia's biggest employers of foreign labour. But recently, cases of deaths, abuse and forced labour have come to light. What is going on? Who is protecting these migrant workers?
By Ye Mon
The Ministry of Labour yesterday suspended the pipeline of workers going abroad to Malaysia amid a diplomatic spat between the two ASEAN nations over the ongoing violence in Rakhine State.
The Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population released a statement yesterday saying the government will stop sending Myanmar workers to Malaysia because of the current situation in the neighbouring country.
U Myat Thu, a member of the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation’s (MOEAF) central executive committee, said he was made aware of the ministry’s ban.
“I think this is the Myanmar government’s response to Malaysia after their prime minister’s action. Malaysian companies will face difficulties if Myanmar workers don’t go there,” he said.
The two nations have been engaged in a war of words that escalated this past weekend when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak attend a rally in Kuala Lumpur condemning the treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State.
Yesterday, the Malaysian ambassador to Myanmar was officially summoned to Nay Pyi Taw to receive a formal objection to the Malaysian government’s terminology in describing the ongoing violence and military operations in Rakhine’s Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships.
“We don’t agree with their use of the terms ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’ so we have officially registered our objection with the ambassador,” said foreign ministry director general U Kyaw Zeya, who attended the meeting.
Malaysia has dialed up its criticism of Myanmar’s military operation in northern Rakhine State and the subsequent allegations of abuses. Myanmar has termed the issue an “internal affair”, but Malaysia’s cabinet says this is no longer the case with tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh, and taking to boats to escape.
Speaking at the December 4 rally in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Najib described the violence in Rakhine State as “genocide” and encouraged Muslim-majority Indonesia to also join the protests, while the Malaysian Foreign Ministry had a day earlier issued a statement in relation to the issue which read, “The fact that only one particular ethnicity is being driven out is by definition ethnic cleansing.”
Several critics have pointed out that the rhetoric is being ramped up just before key elections in Malaysia, and just following a large corruption scandal plaguing Mr Najib and his cabinet.
Presaging the labour ministry’s retributive cutting of ties, the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) expressed concern that Myanmar may recall its many migrant workers from the country in the wake of the diplomatic turmoil between the regional neighbours.
Free Malaysia Today quoted MEF’s executive director Shamsuddin Bardan as saying the Myanmar government may recall its citizens working in Malaysia due to strained bilateral ties. “The Myanmar government is not happy with us for condemning them,” he said.
The article also cited statistics from Malaysia’s Human Resources Ministry, which state that there are 141,858 Myanmar labourers in Malaysia, with 71 percent of them working in the manufacturing industry.
This figure is far less than the estimates given by MOEAF, which say there are between 500,000 and 700,000 Myanmar citizens living and working in Malaysia.
U Kyaw Zay Lwin, chair of the Yadana Setka Free Funeral Service Association based in Malaysia’s Joho township, yesterday said the Malaysian government would not wish to lose its Myanmar workforce because these migrant workers outnumber all other nationalities in terms of foreign labour.
“If the Myanmar government recalls its citizens, the Malaysian economy will suffer because most of these Myanmar citizens are working for Malaysian companies and industries,” he said.
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