WHEN he arrived in Malaysia in 2016 from Afghanistan, university graduate Ali Saleh* begged for a job wherever he could.
“We fled to Malaysia because of my social activism. When we got here, I was desperate. We had spent almost everything we had to pay the smugglers to get us to Malaysia. I didn’t know how we were going to survive here,” he says .
He was happy when a lorry driver hired him as an assistant. But when it was time for him to get paid, his boss gave him only half of what was promised.
“ I was so tired and my whole body was aching from carrying heavy boxes all day, but I took home less than RM50 that day.”
This is a common story for refugees in Malaysia who are forced to work illicitly – many are shortchanged on their wages, if they get paid at all, with no recourse.
A research by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) in 2013 found that of the refugees surveyed, 26% earned less than RM500 per month, while 58% earned between RM500-RM1000 per month. This has not changed much since, even with the introduction of minimum wage – since refugees are working illegally, they have no entitlement to the minimum wage and no power to enforce it.
If they are given the right to work, refugees will not only be able to boost their income and increase their self-sufficiency, but they will also be able to contribute to the Malaysian economy, according to a recent study by local think tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas).
Titled “The Economic Impact of Granting Refugees in Malaysia the Right To Work”, the report estimates that if they were allowed to work here legally, it would increase the total monthly income of all refugees to over RM165 million by 2024. This means they ould contribute over RM3bil to the Malaysian economy.
“Increasing refugee incomes would bring substantial economic benefits to the refugee community, enabling them to purchase more and higher quality goods and services and raising their overall quality of life. This increase in consumer spending would also have a positive impact on the wider economy, stimulating demand for goods and services produced in Malaysia.
“In turn this translates into higher profits and incomes for companies and individuals producing these goods and services,” says the report.
The wider economic impact of this policy reform, including indirect effects, could be substantially more, adds Ideas.
In addition to boosting the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), the report highlights that allowing refugees to work would lead to an increase in tax revenues, with a total contribution estimated at RM50 million each year by 2024.
The report concludes that employment and wages of Malaysians would benefit, with refugees helping to create over 4,000 jobs for Malaysians if given the right to work.
In the long term, the report says that investment in education for refugees alongside the local population would see substantial dividends for the country. They estimate that under a scenario where refugees were granted access to education on par with locals, their contributions to GDP could increase to over RM6.5 billion each year by 2040 with annual contribution in taxes of over RM250 million.
A matter of survivalStill, for most refugees, the right to work is important as it could solve a lot of their problems. In order to survive, many refugees take on informal work despite profound risk and fear of being detained.
Says Kachin Refugee Committee president Htu Lai Magawng they had to do odd jobs to feed their families on a meagre income while being at risk of exploitation by employers.
“If refugees have the right to work, we can avoid exploitation from employers,” she says, adding that they can also avoid being extorted by enforcement agencies who might arrest them for working illegally.
While refugees are not allowed to work legally, many of them work in informal sectors in the so-called 3D – dangerous, dirty and difficult – jobs. According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the majority work in the horticulture and agriculture, construction, and cleaning sectors.
Says Ideas, a formal access to the labour market would present a wider array of work opportunities for refugees, which would in turn increase the participation rate, and therefore incomes. Currently, refugees’ participation rate in the labour force is lower than the national average due to the dangerous and unattractive nature of the work available, including the fact that refugees and asylums seekers are vulnerable to arrest and detention as they are working illegally.
“The legal right to work would increase incomes for refugees by reducing the scope for exploitation, including lower wages which can also be withheld,” says the think tank. With the legal right to work, the incidence of exploitation would decrease as refugees would enjoy increased bargaining power and the right to pursue claims against unscrupulous employers.
Asylum Access director Hui Ying Tham shares that in-depth research on granting refugees the right to work shows a myriad of benefits both to Malaysia and the refugee communities. It also decreases risks of human trafficking, smuggling, and forced labour, she says. According to Hui, Malaysia has previously granted refugees temporary legal status and the right to work under existing legal frameworks through the use of exemption orders and special passes.
“This can provide us with a good blueprint to build upon - however a more harmonised and inclusive approach is necessary.” she says. “We can also draw on lessons from countries like Turkey and Ecuador which have reaped economic benefits from granting refugees the right to work.”
Hui belives that formal labour market inclusion programmes are likely to be most successful when bureaucracy in obtaining legal status or work documentation is reduced, industry and geographic restrictions are removed, open to all refugee groups without restriction, labour protections for refugees are enforced, and labour market inclusion is actively promoted.
She adds that it was encouraging to note that the Government has clearly articulated its commitment in Promise 35 in its manifesto to grant refugees the right to work on par with locals.
“Therefore it is clear that the Government is well aware of the benefits of granting refugees the right to work. As such, we are of the view that a prompt and systematic implementation of this promise would be beneficial for both Malaysia and the refugee communities,” she says, adding that fulfilling the promise 35 will require a well-designed strategy.
Rafik Shah Ismail, 43, a Rohingya community leader with the Human Aid Selangor Society says that while waiting for resettlement to third countries, refugees need to sustain themselves.
“The process of resettlement can take up to 10-15 years and we have remember that not everyone is resettled. While waiting, there is no choice but to work,” he says, pointing out to the high cost of living.
He adds, if any accidents occured, refugees working illegally are not covered by insurance. There is also a possibility of both employers and workers taking advantage of one another.
“A refugee could steal from the employee and then he could not be traced. On the other side, the employer could not pay the worker and there wouldn’t be any redress for them.
“Or they might turn to crime or even beg for money in the city centre,” he says.
Rafik, however, stresses that if the Government does allow refugees the right to work, they should handle the process directly and not outsource it to companies or other parties.THE UNHCR believes that a work scheme to allow genuine refugees the opportunity to work lawfully would provide a source of willing labour to support the Malaysian economy.
UNHCR Spokesperson in Kuala Lumpur, Yante Ismail, says that the World Bank has shown in its 2015 Malaysia Economic Monitor that legalised refugee workers would lead to the creation of more jobs in Malaysia, increased wages for Malaysians, and increased GDP.
“UNHCR estimates that monetary contributions generated by a legalised refugee workforce could amount to RM152 million in annual revenue for Malaysia, based on the same levy rates as legal foreign workers,” she says.
Yante says that access to legal work will also transform the quality and protection of refugees’ lives in terms of enhancing self-sufficiency.
A greater self-sufficiency in refugee communities will lead to better health and education and significantly reduce the burden on the host state while providing a stronger basis for refugees to contemplate their future options, including returning to their home countries with transferrable skills to start their new lives.
According to Yante, the UNHCR receives hundreds of calls from employers wishing to support refugees either through employment, internship, or training.
“Unfortunately, unless there is a regulated scheme for employing refugees, these Malaysians who are interested in helping refugees to become self-reliant, have to be turned away,” she says.
However, in December 2016, the Home Affairs Ministry implemented a government-led pilot work scheme for an initial number of 300 Rohingya refugees, shares Yante.
The UNHCR has been providing technical advice and support to the government-led programme, which is currently limited to two sectors, namely plantation and manufacturing.
The plantation sector was piloted first and in December 2017, the pilot programme continued with a batch of refugees working in a manufacturing company (an industrial bakery).
The pilot programme also includes cultural and skills-training conducted by UNHCR’s partner NGO to prepare refugees for the workforce.
There are many Rohingya refugees who are successfully involved in the pilot programme, with many more wanting to participate and work legally, says Yante.
“It is our hope that after this initial pilot phase, this scheme can be expanded to benefit all refugees in the country. We are convinced that this new approach is a ‘win-win’ for the people of Malaysia, for its security and economy, and for refugees who live here temporarily.”
As of April this year, there are some 170,460 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. The majority are adults (aged 18 – 59) and male, and therefore of working, taxpaying age.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol.
It lacks legal or administrative framework regulating the status and rights of refugees in Malaysia. Refugees are considered undocumented migrants under the Malaysian Immigration Act, and are at risk of arrest, detention, and deportation.
However, last December, the government joined 180 other nations of the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). At the heart of the GCR is the idea that refugees should be included in the communities from the very beginning. “When refugees gain access to education and labour markets, they can build their skills and become self-reliant, contributing to local economies and fuelling the development of the communities hosting them,” it states.
In its manifesto, Pakatan Harapan said that it would ratify the 1951 International Convention on refugees so that refugees who escape from war-torn countries and arrive in Malaysia are given proper assistance.
“Their labour rights will be at par with locals and this initiative will reduce the country’s need for foreign workers and lower the risk of refugees from becoming involved in criminal activities and underground economies.
“Providing them with jobs will help refugees to build new lives and without subjecting them to oppression,” Pakatan had said.