Saturday, January 8, 2011

End slavery, protect rights of migrant workers

Malaysia is the largest receiving country of migrants within Asean and one of the biggest for transborder recruitment of workers in Asia. Almost one out of every three workers in the country is a migrant worker. In spit of political leaders stating over and over that we will not continue to rely on migrant workers, the truth is the number of workers has increased and the demand for migrant workers is growing.
Last week, the deputy prime minister in his address to KIMMA, a political party assured them that the government will approve the recruitment of 45,000 workers from India for the Indian Muslim restaurants.
The service sector through the retailers association in Sabah has called for the government to stop deportation of workers from Sabah. Yes we will continue to rely more and more on migrant labour and it is a myth to believe it will be otherwise. In fact, it is migrants who provide us the economic security today.
December 18 is International Migrant's Day where the world and the United Nations recognise the contribution of migrants to a country's development. But where does Malaysia stand in this recognition?
Two Amnesty International reports released this year, 'Trapped' and 'Blow to Humanity' reveal the exploitative and violent nature in the treatment of migrant workers to the point of using whipping as a tool of torture for control of migrants.
Tenaganita's experience during the last three years reveals the treatment of migrants to be equivalent to a form of modern day slavery supported by an oppressive policy framework that denies access to justice and redress.
The organisation through its work in case management between the years 2008 - 2010 handled complaints from a total of 7,083 migrant workers. Out of these migrants, 6,001 workers were recruited and placed under outsourcing companies.
All of the migrant workers' passports were held by the employer or the outsourcing company, thereby controlling the movement of the migrant worker. Out of this total, 6,772 workers did not have any work to do and thus cheated by the agent and the outsourcing companies. This form of rights violation reveals over-recruitment of workers and approval of work permits without proper scrutiny and verification of work demand in the country.
It is equally alarming that the cases reveal that 5,260 workers had not received any wages for the work they had done and the work permits of 1,028 workers were not renewed. This non-renewal of work permit makes the migrant worker undocumented and thus open to arrest, detention, whipping an deportation. Over 900 workers have complained that violence was used when they asked for wages or brought up a problem like health to their employer or agent.

Gov't blind or complicit?

The above statistics should be an alarm bell for the government to wake up to the serious human rights violations of migrant workers. But the government agencies, in particular, the Immigration department, the Police and the Labour Department have denied the workers their right to redress.
Less than 10 percent of the workers could get back some wages and return. 90 percent of the workers were forced to return due to fear of arrest, unable to sustain themselves or were arrested and deported.
All the workers whose passports were held by the employer or the recruitment agency made police reports but no investigations were done although it was an offence to hold the passport of another person under the Passports Act. No employer nor recruitment agency have been punished under this Act.
The Immigration department has a policy where the worker can renew his special pass for three months only and if his case is yet to be settled, he has to leave the country, and return when the court case resumes under his own expenses. Many of the workers did not even have the passport to get a special visa. Their employers had immediately cancelled the work permit when the worker left the workplace to lodge a complaint against the employer.
All the workers who were recruited and placed under outsourcing companies paid the recruitment agency in the source country like Bangladesh and Nepal between RM9,000 - 15,000 for the work in Malaysia. The workers took loans to get the job here and yet 6,772 workers from Tenaganita's case files did not have any work. The workers were in a debt bondage situation, cheated by the outsourcing companies through the support of Malaysia's government machinery, the Home Ministry.
The issuance of work permits and calling visas freely without proper verification by the Home Ministry requires serious explanations from the Minister. Earlier this year during the trial of Wahid Md Don, the former director general of immigration for corruption, witnesses in the trial stated that the money paid for visas was for political financing.

One witness had paid more than RM 1.2 million. Tenaganita's investigations reveal that recruitment agencies had to pay up to RM2,000 for every visa to the Immigration department officials as part of “processing” fees. The rapid registration of over 200 outsourcing companies in 2006 and 2007 and mass recruitment of over 300,000 Bangladeshi workers in 2006 and 2007 and 2008 prior to the 12th general election, fits the puzzle of money from poor migrant workers used for political financing to maintain an oppressive regime.

Modern day slavery

Domestic workers are another group of workers who remain unrecognised as workers but defined as servants. In spite of trade unions, the Bar Council, Tenaganita and other civil society organisations repeatedly calling the government to give a paid day off once a week, for a decent minimum wage, passports to be held by domestic workers and a proper standardised contract, the government wants to continue to keep a legal, policy framework that is exploitative and places the domestic worker in a condition of slavery, unprotected in private domain.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Indonesia remains in limbo for the sole reason that Indonesia wants the basic rights of its workers with a decent wage to be respected and defined in the MOU.

Therefore what we see, from our case management is that migrant workers are in a state of bonded labor, forced to work because of debt bondage or the work permit disallows them to move to another employer and thus forced to work in abusive and exploitative work conditions.

The Malaysian government has also failed to heed the call by civil society and trade unions for a comprehensive policy on the recruitment, placement and employment of migrant workers in the country. It has also yet to come out with a decent minimum wage structure. The exploitation and abuse of migrants has been further compounded with subcontracting of labor and deregulation of labour where thousands of workers have been excluded from protection of rights.

The legal framework and the lack of clear policies with perceptions that migrants are a national security threat has increased the vulnerability of migrants to being arrested, detained and deported, to being discriminated, their rights violated with impunity and consequently forced to submit to such conditions of work which constitute modern day slavery.

“While we commend the government for the enactment of the Anti Trafficking in Person's Act with amendments made to recognise labour officers as enforcers of the Act, this Act will remain window dressing and a public relations exercise if there is no commitment to put into place a comprehensive policy framework with an end to corruption and introducing clear mechanisms and oversight for good governance in migration.

There is an imminent need to end the practices of slavery and the slave market for profits, political gain to power and corruption that will destroy this country's economic development and sustainability. If the government is committed to the building of a singular Asean community by 2015, it must respect fundamental human rights of all migrant workers with decent work and decent wage.

Irene Fernandez is executive director.of NGO Tenaganita.