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?
KUALA LUMPUR: Autonomy advocacy group Sarawak 4 Sarawakians feels the state’s autonomy on immigration is being misused.
This follows the barring of Sabah opposition leader Jeffrey Kitingan from entering the state on March 11.
S4S spokesperson Peter John Jaban said it was an irony that Kitingan, whom he described as a respected Borneo activist and human rights campaigner, had been barred in the same week it was reported that Sarawak was the only state which had North Korean workers.
He called on the state government to cancel its memorandum of understanding (MoU) to allow in North Koreans and redefine Sarawak immigration policies to ensure they were brought in line with the spirit and letter of the Malaysia Agreement 1963.
“This includes both lifting the ban on all activists and politicians of good standing as well as reviewing the current position of overseas workers in the state,” he said in a statement today.
“This special right, negotiated at the time of the formation of Malaysia, was afforded to protect Sarawak’s economic interests within the framework of Malaysia and the access of Sarawak workers to employment and economic progress within their own state.
“It was certainly not intended to restrict the Sarawak people from receiving appropriate information from activists, media outlets and politicians across the divide,” he said.
Jeffrey, who is Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (STAR) president and assemblyman for Bingkor, was stopped by immigration officers upon arrival at the Kuching International Airport at 6pm on Saturday.
He was scheduled to chair a meeting on Dayak affairs in Kuching, attended by leaders from Kalimantan, Sabah and Sarawak.
Welcoming any ban on “unsavoury or criminal elements” who had been proven to be fomenting racial and religious hatred, Peter urged the Sarawak government to ensure that controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik was not allowed into the state although the federal government had given him safe harbour.
He said such a case contrasted with that of Jeffrey and many others on the immigration blacklist.
“Meanwhile, our current immigration policies in respect of overseas workers are singularly failing to protect the interests of the Sarawak workforce as they were intended, and exposing our state to international condemnation,” he said.
Peter pointed to the use of North Korean workers in the state under an MoU that had recently come to light following the high-profile murder of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un, in Kuala Lumpur on Feb 13.
He noted that the United Nations had placed sanctions on North Korea due to the regime’s internal repression and poor human rights record.
He also said the Sarawak Labour Department had refused to renew the work permit for North Koreans in the state.
However, the immigration department was issuing temporary employment passes, he said. Once the Korean workers were in the state, he said it was common practice for their employers to retain their passports which, under international guidelines, amounted to bonded labour.
Peter said he had conducted investigations into immigration abuses and human trafficking in the mining and plantation sectors, including in an Undercover Asia documentary project in 2014.
“We find ourselves in a situation where a mining company with a poor safety record can facilitate North Korea in enslaving its own people, which ultimately ended in nine deaths and many more injured on Sarawak soil – a source of great shame to the good people of the state,” he said.
He said his investigation had shown that North Koreans in the mine received only a monthly pay of RM100 to RM200, far below the minimum wage guaranteed under the Minimum Wage Order of RM920, as an official representing them collected the workers’ salaries.
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