UNDOCUMENTED migrant workers make up more than two-thirds of the migrant workforce in Malaysia and their numbers seem to be growing steadily. The government has always acknowledged a legal migrant workforce of about two million. The number of undocumented workers, meanwhile, is now thought to be a staggering five million!
Paradoxically, though they are considered illegal and regularly hunted by Immigration officials, they are the mainstay of our SMEs, farms and construction industry.
But this “invisible” workforce whose huge contribution to the economy is not officially acknowledged, and whose numbers don’t feature in our population statistics, didn’t all enter the country illegally. Our Home Ministry itself will vouch for the fact that there is no way foreigners without papers can enter the country in such massive numbers.
Most migrant workers become undocumented for reasons linked to the lucrative labour migration trade. Many are victims of trafficking and smuggling syndicates that involve a complex chain of actors working together, including corrupt officials and enforcers from both the countries of origin and destination.
Being stuck on Tier 2 Watch List of the USA TIP report only shows that Malaysia, via Mapo (Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Council) has failed miserably to contain trafficking and smuggling.
The recent RCI (Royal Commission of Inquiry) on the Wang Kelian, Perlis death camps reveals more unanswered questions about Malaysia’s seriousness in managing the number of undocumented workers with more concrete border enforcement.
Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran has repeatedly said the number of migrant workers entering Malaysia is not solely determined by his ministry and that the Home Affairs Ministry also has a say! This duplication of roles leads to over-recruitment for profiteering and exploitation.
Human trafficking, over-hiring and cheating for fast money result in workers becoming undocumented soon after they arrive.
The absence of the right to redress illegal holding of passports and other realities like the nature of the construction industry necessitating regular change of employer further make the migrant worker vulnerable to becoming undocumented at any time.
The issue of undocumented workers logically has to be tackled by addressing the contributing factors. Profit-making from recruitment, management and enforcement of migrant labour must stop.
The government must take over crucial aspects of labour migration such as recruitment, and eliminate the role of outsourcing companies and other middlemen, as committed to by the 11th Malaysia Plan.
The government also needs to put in place firm policies on recruitment, protected avenues to justice and flexibility of work permits for certain sectors of employment while enforcing existing laws like the Passport Act to guard against workers losing their documented status.
The government needs to review its so-called “tough, no-nonsense stand on illegal immigrants”. It needs to honestly assess the success of its endless raids, amnesty and rehiring programmes, detention and deportation in bringing down the number of undocumented workers.
These measures target the victims of a flawed labour migration set up. For most of them, returning home midway is not an option as they have taken big loans to pay the often inflated costs of migration charged by agents.
The many problems of labour migration, like the unwieldy number of undocumented workers, stem from the lack of clear policy guidelines.
The previous government responded to situations in an ad hoc way, often flip-flopping on decisions rather than committing itself to formulating a comprehensive policy on labour migration.
Such a policy has the potential of averting or resolving many of the persistent problems linked to labour migration in the country, but even the new government has shown little interest in it so far.
A serious and honest appraisal of the current labour migration situation, and the political will to effect a change are urgently needed.
MIGRANT WORKERS’ RIGHT TO REDRESS COALITION
(This coalition includes the Foreign Spouses Support Group, North South Initiative, Parti Sosialis Malaysia, Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign, Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor, and Tenaganita)