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?
Abu Sayeed Asiful Islam, Adil Sakhawat
The land of promise for tens of thousands of Bangladeshi labourers, Malaysia is fast becoming a place of bondage for them.
A loss of registration status has left between 800,000 and 948,000 Bangladeshi nationals, according to data from Malaysian rights organisation Tenaganita, vulnerable to low-wage exploitation or police raids and detention.
Despite its need for imported labour, the problem of dealing with the 3.2 million undocumented labourers from all over the world has made many Malaysians less welcoming towards Bangladeshi workers, even those using legal channels.
The approval by Cabinet on February 8 of a draft memorandum of understanding to export 1.5 million workers under the G2G Plus scheme has led some quarters in Malaysia to protest against a renewed influx of foreign workers.
Some local Malaysian NGOs are calling for a moratorium on labour imports until existing undocumented labourers are registered.
Malaysia’s registration system ties workers to an employer and a job. So illegal entrants, a minority, and legal arrivals who become undocumented by default if they switch jobs, are at increased risk of exploitation by employers or detention by authorities.
After surviving the “floating coffins” and jungle cages used by people smugglers or the costly legal labour recruitment system offered by the public and private sectors, Bangladeshi workers are often no better off than where they started.
Burdened by the debt of buying passage to Malaysia – whether by legal means or otherwise – most are inclined to try their luck in the hope of recouping their costs and sending money home.
“Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia are vulnerable, especially if they have fallen out of the system,” a senior research volunteer at Tenaganita, who asked not to be named, said.
“Registering undocumented labourers would be a good thing,” the volunteer added.
Documenting labourers enhances their ability to resist being exploited by unscrupulous employers and enables them to have recourse to the law if disputes over working conditions, wages or other matters arise.
Theoretically, registration would essentially mean getting existing foreign workers a job, since legal status is tied to an employer and a job.
Properly utilising the foreign labour force would probably be a win-win situation: workers would enjoy legal protections and underutilised labours would be utilised more fully.
“Without the proper papers, workers have little standing in the courts and power rests overwhelmingly with employers. While Malaysia has superb labour laws, even better than some first world countries, they suffer from inefficient enforcement by the authorities and by delays in the courts,” the Tenaganita volunteer said.
This restoration of legal standing will be important for the 15,000 and 18,000 Bangladeshis who are in custody for various offences and in a variety of holding facilities in Malaysia, including the notorious “immigration depots.”
“If you treat them badly, they’ll take it quietly”
Malaysia’s economy can absorb the existing undocumented foreign workforce and still require the extra 1.5 million that Bangladesh is getting ready to supply through formal channels.
That is so because the demand for labour in 3-D jobs – which stands for Dirty, Dangerous, and Demanding – is said to be around 9 million. There are currently just 6 million foreign labourers in Malaysia of whom just 2.8 million have valid documentation of some kind. But unscrupulous employers have little reason to welcome registration because that would increase labour costs, the Tenaganita volunteer said.
“Bangladeshi labourers are the most expendable group of labourers; if you treat them badly, they’ll take it quietly,” Ashikur Rahman, chairman of Migrant 88, a Bangladeshi migrant rights NGO in the process of being registered, told the Dhaka Tribune.
When action is taken to address the problem of undocumented workers, labourers suffer but their employers and the system that leaves them in limbo are untouched, he said.
Take the raids on undocumented workers in the Cameron Highlands in 2015. In a Rakyat Post report published on January 10, 2015, the president of the Regional Environmental Awareness of Cameron Highlands (REACH), Ramakrishnan Ramasamy, pointed out that not a single employer had been charged with employing undocumented workers.
“A bit higher than a dog”
Advocacy for Bangladeshi migrant workers in Malaysia is inadequate, Migrant 88’s Ashik said. Labourers complain that Bangladesh embassy staff are often unsympathetic towards them.
“They see me as a bit higher than a dog,” Ashik recalls one migrant worker telling him.
Volunteers of rights organisations in Malaysia have told the Dhaka Tribune that Bangladesh embassy staff are slow to respond to requests for assistance and are often indifferent to the plight of workers.
Many migrants labourers alleged that embassy staff sought bribes to process even routine paperwork, but this could not be independently verified by the Dhaka Tribune.
Bangladesh High Commissioner to Malaysia Shahidul Islam responded to these concerns over the telephone.
He said his staff routinely provided services to Bangladeshis at a rate far beyond the embassy’s capacity, adding that embassy staff had strict orders to maintain the highest standards of courtesy and professionalism when providing citizenship services.
But he admitted that with the overwhelming workload it was possible that those standards were not always maintained.
“Why does Bangladesh, which has a million and a half nationals in Malaysia, operate a High Commission with just 11 officers?” Ashik said. Other South Asian countries have been far more effective in protecting their labourers in Malaysia.
The position of Indian workers, for example, is bolstered by the presence of a historic community of Malaysians of Indian origin who are able to advocate for them and assist them.
Nepal has leveraged the renown of the Gurkha soldier to corner the market for imported security personnel and has worked to create favourable working conditions for its nationals.
“Modern day slavery”
Ashikur Rahman of Migrant 88 – the number 88 refers to Bangladesh’s telephone country code – says Bangladeshi labourers are often asked to buy their own safety equipment.
“Construction workers are asked by some employers to purchase even basic safety gear like helmets or gloves, which labourers often do not do because they would rather save their income,” he said.
Plantation workers are routinely exposed to hazardous chemicals that can cause serious long-term damage to the respiratory system, skin, eyes and endocrine system. “But they are often not given protective clothing and have little or no access to health care facilities.”
“Modern day slavery – that is what many Bangladeshi labourers are enduring in Malaysia,” Ashik said.
The irony is that ethnic Malays, who make up about half of the country’s “bhumiputras” or sons of the soil, were themselves migrants to what is now Malaysia. Other powerful communities such as the Chinese and Indians were also migrants and often enjoy more say in modern Malaysia than the indigenous communities, known as “orang aslih.”
Despite protests by local groups who oppose more Bangladeshi labourers coming to the country, High Commissioner Shahidul is optimistic about the future prospects for the export of manpower. He reaffirmed that at the government-to-government level, both countries are keen.
The logic is simple: Bangladesh’s labour surplus can easily be absorbed by Malaysia’s labour-hungry economy.
The question that remains for both countries is why it is taking so long to realise that a healthy and well-treated labour force, no matter its origins, is equally important to economic productivity and social justice.
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