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?
The country must figure out how to protect its workers while honouring humanitarian values in regard to migrants and refugees.
By Steven Sim Chee Keong
US President Donald Trump’s executive order to ban immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries provoked reactions in the US and worldwide, not least in Malaysia.
While the debate on border control is still hot, I want to bring attention to the immigration question in Malaysia.
We must not forget we have our own immigration problems, which are bordering on a crisis.
Ultimately, we must answer the question on how to position Malaysia to tap into the global talent pool while protecting our workers and honouring universal humanitarian values in regard to migrants.
Yes to stricter border control
While we agree with stricter immigration and border controls, we cannot agree to immigration policies that victimise genuine migrants.
Such action as a blanket ban a la Trump not only runs counter to human rights principles but are also a disadvantage for us from the perspective of free movement of talent and manpower.
The four immigration issues we need to deal with on the Malaysian front are:
Contractors rake in millions of ringgit
Firstly, our immigration policy is driven by a network of immigration contractors raking in hundreds of millions doing paper-shifting work for the government.
As a result, we now have as many migrant workers as we have Malaysian Indians. As recently as last year, the government even attempted to bring in 1.5 million more Bangladeshi workers.
The number of migrant workers exceeds the federal government’s projection.
The reason is clear. In Malaysia, the import of migrant workers is not to support local businesses but rather taken to be a lucrative business in itself.
Secondly, there is the insiders’ syndicate which facilitates human trafficking across our borders.
In May 2015, Malaysian police discovered a human trafficking camp and mass graves of refugees in Wang Kelian, Perlis, near the Malaysia-Thai border.
Such camps were also reported to be found in places such Kedah, Perak, Pahang and Penang.
As early as 2009, international reports implicated Malaysian government officials in human trafficking activities in Malaysia.
With the discovery of the mass graves in Perlis, 12 police officers allegedly linked to human trafficking were arrested.
A news outlet in 2015 exposed a Special Branch report stating 80% of our border guards are “on the take”. And we are not talking about officials at obscure jungle posts.
In May 2016, over 100 Immigration Department employees, mostly stationed in KLIA, were implicated in an investigation into sabotage of the computerised Malaysian Immigration System (MyIMMS) to facilitate various violation of immigration laws.
The immigration director-general admitted that the insiders’ syndicate had been in operation since 2000.
Refugees and undocumented migrants
Thirdly, while Europe and the US are dealing with Middle-Eastern refugees, Malaysia and Asean face, albeit to a much lesser degree, the Rohingya problem.
Who can forget images of over 10,000 Rohingya boat people stranded just outside our waters in 2015?
About 1,000 of them were granted permission to land and then housed in a detention centre in Kedah. Out of these, 371 received refugee status from UNHCR. After a year, more than 300 were still stranded at the detention centre. But these are still the “fortunate” ones.
There are others, possibly hundreds more, scattered in camps in jungles such as the one in Wang Kelian or imprisoned in our cities and towns, who are subjected to torture and abuse, with the women and children sold as sex workers.
There are an estimated two to three million undocumented migrants in our country.
Together with the two million documented migrant workers, they make up about 16% of our total population — that is more than the Indian, Kadazan and Iban populations in this country put together.
In other words, at least one in 10 persons in Malaysia is an undocumented migrant, or two in 10 are migrants if we count those who are documented.
Protection of Malaysian workers
Fourthly, the discrimination against our own talent and the indiscriminate intake of low-skilled, low-wage migrant workers is causing a huge problem in our job market.
On one hand, our country is experiencing an acute brain drain, which the government has acknowledged with the formation of Talent Corp to deal with the problem. On the other hand, our job market is flooded with low-skilled, low-wage migrant workers.
This means that while companies are starved of talent, locals have to compete with migrant workers for blue collar and entry-level jobs, often to their disadvantage.
This situation is definitely unhealthy for our economy in the long run.
10 key steps for Immigration Department
The above four key measures can be broken into 10 steps by the new immigration director-general, Mustafar Ali:
1. Border control is critical. We must not allow our country to be a hub for human trafficking or terror-related activities. A thorough audit of the border management system must be conducted all over the country.
2. A high-level investigation and law enforcement task force, led by the Enforcement Agencies Integrity Commission, with participation from the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, should be established to crush the insiders’ syndicate in our immigration system.
3. The import of low-skilled migrant workers must not be viewed as a lucrative business for cronies but as support for local businesses.
4. Immigration contractors must be appointed via stringent vetting and through a transparent tender process.
5. There must be proper rationalisation of power between the home and human resources ministries when it comes to dealing with migrant workers’ intake.
The human resources ministry must play a greater role than now as it is overshadowed by the “more senior” home ministry, which focuses only on border control and law enforcement.
The confusion of powers between the two ministries and the usurpation by the home minister of matters related to intake of migrant workers have caused an indiscriminate inflow of migrant workers, abuse of power as well as border control failure.
6. A proper national human resource route map is urgently needed to ensure job policies protect Malaysians while we take advantage of the global talent pool. This should be done in consultation with the industries, unions and rights groups.
7. The Malaysian industry must be incentivised (and penalised if necessary via a carrot-and-stick strategy) to upgrade, upscale and upskill. One example is to use the South Korean strategy of export discipline as both a boost for local industry to sell in a global market and as an incentive for it to upgrade.
8. Any immigration reform must not victimise the migrants. A nationwide exercise to register undocumented migrants must be conducted. The cost of registration must be low enough and the price of not registering high enough to ensure greater compliance.
9. A moratorium on the import of new low-skilled workers should be imposed post-registration and the newly added Section 51(a) of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007 enforced to allow the hiring of previously undocumented migrants, refugees and victims of trafficking where suitable. The moratorium can be lifted accordingly when we have a proper national human resource blueprint.
10. Finally, the government should establish a Royal Commission on Immigration Reform in the spirit of the Dzaiddin Royal Commission of Inquiry into Police Reform to thoroughly clean up our immigration system to match modern security needs as well as the new challenges and opportunities of globalisation for Malaysia.
*Steven Sim Chee Keong is DAP MP for Bukit Mertajam. He is also director of the Penang Institute.
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