Overstaying to earn a living in Malaysia

Foreign workers have set up stalls at a morning market in Meru, Klang, Selangor. — Photos: Bernama

The sun was high but the morning market at Meru in Klang, Selangor was still abuzz – customers could be heard haggling for bargains.

At a stall, a man in his 30s was busy cutting a whole chicken into pieces for customers.

“I’m from Bangladesh and have been in this business for a year,” he told Bernama.

Karim, as he wanted to be known, said he had to make a living as a trader illegally as his employer did not renew his permit to work at a plastic processing factory in Selangor.

“I’m aware that the authorities may conduct a raid here but I need money to live on and send to my wife and two young children in Bangladesh,” he said in broken Malay.

Karim did not return to Bangladesh when his permit expired because he did not have enough money.

“(But) now, I can make a profit of about RM100 a day,” said Karim, who owns a van.

He feared being caught by the authorities, noting that he could not afford to pay the fines.

“That’s why I have to save as much money as I can now.”

Many migrants

According to local traders at the market, Karim was among a number of migrants doing business there, with most selling vegetables, fish and chicken.

“If there’s a raid, they would run and just abandon their produce,” said a trader who did not want to be named.

The growing presence of migrants like Karim is worrying local traders, who say the illegal migrants are giving them a run for their money.

Commenting on the issue, Malaysia International Humanitarian Organisation (MHO) secretary-general Datuk Hishamuddin Hashim said Malaysia was regarded as a haven for migrants.

Foreign workers conducting business at the Meru market.Foreign workers conducting business at the Meru market.

“They originally had valid documents such as temporary work permit or social visit pass for a certain period, but have remained in the country although their permits have expired as they can still earn a living here regardless,” he added.

The International Organisation for Migration had reported that there were about 1.2 million to 3.5 million undocumented migrants in Malaysia as of 2022.

A source from the Home Ministry said as of early this year, migrant workers in six formal sectors stood at about two million – below the 2.4 million projected by the Economy Ministry and 12th Malaysia Plan.

The source said the forecast was based on the premise that only 15% foreigners were allowed to work in the country at a given time compared to the total workforce.

Currently there are about 17 million Malaysians working in these sectors.

“Despite the risks of being fined RM1,000 or jailed not more than six months for those who fail to comply with conditions under the temporary work permit and social visit pass, they do not seem to be afraid of (our) laws. This is the reality,” said Hishamuddin.

He did not dismiss the possibility that foreign workers who were terminated at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic chose to break the law by staying here illegally.

“At the time, they could not return to their country of origin as borders were closed.

“Now that the borders have reopened, many refuse to go home.

“In my opinion, the key driving factor is economic,” he said.

Hishamuddin said the problem had worsened as many of these foreign workers had ventured into sectors previously dominated by locals such as grocery stores, laundry services as well as jobs like cashiers at supermarkets.

“In this regard, I propose that laws be tightened to prevent foreign workers from being involved in the business sector,” he added.

Uncomfortable situation

Based on surveys conducted among local traders, especially those at morning and night markets in Klang Valley, these migrants appear to acquire business spaces easily.

“How could these foreigners easily gain access?” asked Hamidah (not her real name), a trader at the morning market in Meru.

“It’s unfair as we need to apply for a business permit from the local authority and pay rental, but they can just set up a tent without a licence or permit,” said the produce vendor, who sells onions and potatoes.

Universiti Malaya Population and Migration Research Centre deputy head Assoc Prof Dr Mashitah Hamidi said some of the migrants’ attitudes had caused discomfort.

“They appear to be living in their own world and do not really understand the law.”

She said migrants’ domination in a certain area was due to absence of regular and continuous monitoring.

“If monitoring of work passes or social visits can be carried out in a consistent manner, we can definitely prevent such situations,” she added.

Emir Research Social, Law and Human Rights head Jason Loh cited the prevalence of irresponsible parties who were manipulating the system of hiring foreigners.

“They are taking advantage of the demand for foreign labour,” he said, adding that responsible employers would ensure workers were sent back to their country of origin on expiry of their work permit.

However, some employers shirk their responsibility.

“When this happens, these migrants seize opportunities to earn a living, including conducting business illegally,” he added.

The Migrant Repatriation Programme, which starts on March 1, will allow foreigners staying in the country illegally to be sent home after they have settled compounds for various immigration offences including overstaying and entering Malaysia without valid documents.

The Home Ministry previously said the programme was meant to send home undocumented foreigners without them being prosecuted.

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migrants , traders , market


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