By Tim McLaughlin and Nan Tin Thwe
The line of eager job seekers standing in the daily monsoon rain stretches for nearly a block outside the Malaysian embassy in Yangon. They are testament to the fact that, despite recent violence between Myanmar workers in Malaysia and a subsequent ban on sending workers there, the number hoping to be allowed to work in the Muslim nation has not diminished.
About 3000 Myanmar nationals apply each month for Malaysian work visas and the embassy says there has been no noticeable decline. Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims from Myanmar occurred between May 30 to June 4 and were mostly confined to areas around Kuala Lumpur.
The most recent reports put the number killed at six but details are scarce and the Malaysian authorities are still investigating. The violence prompted Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs U Zin Yaw and Deputy Minister for Labour, Employment and Social Security Daw Win Maw Tun to visit Malaysia on June 11. Two days later the Ministry of Labour announced it would stop granting migrant labour cards that enable Myanmar nationals to seek employment in Malaysia.
Despite the stoppage there has been no slump in applications, the Malaysian embassy said. It is likely, however, that those applying for work visas obtained the required documentation from the Ministry of Labour prior to the ban being put in place and the number could drop in coming months when the backlog has cleared. Ministry of Labour officials insist that the measure is a temporary one but say no end date for the measure has been decided. “As situation the settles down, we will send workers again.
We are worried about [Myanmar workers] as they could face an uneasy situation there,” said Daw Moh Moh Thwin, an officer from the Yangon Region Labour Department. However, there appears to be no solid evidence that the violence in Malaysia is linked to clashes between Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and the minority Rohyinga Muslim group in Rakhine State.
Charles Hector, a lawyer and human rights activist in Malaysia, said the religious violence in Myanmar and migrant workers clashes in Malaysia were “not connected”. Zafar Ahmad bin Abdul Ghani, president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia, agreed and said that Rohyinga in Malaysia were “not involved in these attacks”. The concerns over the violence appear to have mostly emanated from Myanmar. For many of the 300,000 legal Myanmar workers in Malaysia, this presented the difficult choice of whether to leave their relatively high-paying jobs and return home to their concerned relatives. “My mum was so worried so I had to come back,” said Ko Myo Aung, 43.
He had worked in Malaysia for 16 years and was running his own metal shop when his elderly mother urged him to return home in early July. “I was ok there. The situation was calm. I tried to explain that to her but it didn’t work.” He blamed sensationalised media reports, including from Myanmar’s state-run outlets, for causing the uproar at home. Since returning he has struggled to find a job and was disappointed with the salary offered at a recent fair organised by the Department of Labour for those who have come back from Malaysia. “I’m glad that my daughter graduated from high school last year.
Otherwise, I don’t know how I would handle it,” he said after receiving an offer of K6000 a day from a local construction firm – not enough to make the K300,000 to K400,000 a month he estimated he would need to cover his expenses and live comfortably. Thirty-one year old Ko Thant Zaw Oo was also disappointed by Myanmar’s low wages after spending three years working on construction sites in Malaysia, where he earned about K450,000 a month. “I was preparing to go back [to Malaysia] then this happened and my family won’t let me go back,” he said.
He said he was treated well while working in Malaysia, and was paid overtime, given medical leave and allowed to take public holidays off. For undocumented workers, however, the reality of life in Malaysia can be strikingly different. Lured by false promises of high-paying jobs and comfortable accommodation, many find themselves working long hours in dangerous conditions with few avenues for gaining better conditions or pay. Despite Malaysian efforts to better manage the undocumented workers, including a 2011 amnesty program, they “basically have no rights”, Mr Hector said.
The Malaysian embassy estimates that there are 100,000 illegal Myanmar workers in Malaysia. Pranom Somwong Pranom Somwong, a representative of the Worker Hub for Change and Network of Acton for Migrants in Malaysia, said workers’ efforts to push for the authorities to ensure better conditions are often stifled by employers or agents. “When migrants do attempt to claim their rights they are threatened, harassed, become victims of violence, summarily ‘shipped back’ to their home country by employers or their agents, many times with no real or effective protection or intervention by the state authorities to prevent this injustice,” she said. Until the recent violence, Myanmar nationals also lacked any support from their own embassy.
“The Burmese embassy [in Malaysia] has always been a problem,” Mr Hector said. “They are not keen to help.” But the recent violence has spurred nationalist pride among not just government officials but also some of the country’s leading businessmen. U Zaw Zaw, the managing director of Max Myanmar, U Tay Za, chairman of Htoo Group, and officials from KBZ Bank and Myanmar Airways International have all rushed to help undocumented workers who have been injured or detained return to Myanmar.
About 2500 have returned so far, the Ministry of Labour said. Their arrivals at Yangon airport in corporate-branded shirts have been splashed across media outlets, including Eleven Media Group, which last week said it had helped pay for the return of over 120 workers. Mr Hector said that he felt this increased private sector role would be welcomed by the Malaysian government, which has long been pressed Myanmar to take more responsibility for its undocumented workers. “The [Malaysian] government doesn’t want to keep people locked up,” Mr Hector said. “It is expensive.”