Malaysia becoming death camp for migrant workers — Joshua Woo Sze Zeng



The maltreatment of migrants has led to many deaths and brought disgrace to the country besides obstructing long-term economic progress.

The maltreatment of migrants has led to many deaths and brought disgrace to the country besides obstructing long-term economic progress.

The Nepalese embassy’s recent report of 461 deaths of its workers in 2015 is a 32% increase from the 348 deaths in 2014. That is an average of nine deaths per week. At this rate, Malaysia is becoming a death camp for migrant workers.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) in its “Review of Labour Migration Policy in Malaysia” has attributed the cause of the high fatality among migrants to “poor working conditions, high-levels of occupational stress and lack of adequate medical care.”

This is all the result of the Federal Government’s ineffective regulation of the welfare of foreign workers and its dubious migrant policy.

Incompetent migrant worker management

According to the World Bank, there are more than three million migrant workers in Malaysia. However, the protection and regulation of migration is substandard.

When reports emerged in 2012 of the more than 1,000 deaths of foreign workers in a year, the then Minister of Human Resources S Subramaniam denied the numbers without giving the official statistics nor proposing corrective measures. Four years have passed, and there is no action being taken.

Such a lax in governance has resulted in at least 13 forms of abuse suffered by migrant workers, as compiled by Universiti Malaya academics Evelyn Devadason and Chan Wai Meng:

The following are the abuses and restrictions listed:

  1. Absence of employment contracts or contracts that are not honoured given that the terms and conditions become less favourable than that agreed upon before the departure of workers from their homeland.
  2. Outsourcing system that denies workers the benefits of collective bargaining agreements given that the terms are agreed upon between recruitment agents and employers.
  3. Unscrupulous employers discouraging workers from joining unions (violation of the Trade Union Act, 1959). In practical terms, the Ministry of Home Affairs has set an absolute prohibition on migrant workers from joining any sort of association.
  4. Discouraging workers from contributing towards the EPF as employers merely contribute RM5 per foreign worker as opposed to the rate applicable for a local worker. Further, a foreign worker is not allowed to make a nomination under the Employees Provident Fund Act 1991.
  5. Inferior benefits accorded under the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1952 that is applicable to foreign workers relative to the protection of local workers under the SOSCO scheme.
  6. Non-payment of wages and unfair dismissal.
  7. Wrongful deduction of wages to cover the cost of work permits (though it was mandated in April 2009 that employers have to bear the cost).
  8. Substandard living conditions and lack of workplace protection against industry injuries.
  9. Workers not insured (violation of the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1952) and insurance compensation not meted out in the case of occupational injuries.
  10. Employers that do not renew permits, resulting in migrants losing their legal status.
  11. Passports witheld by employers and recruiting agents thereby leaving foreign workers vulnerable to arrest, ill-treatment and extortion by police (violation of the Passport Act 1964).
  12. Loss of status as documented workers when their rights are violated and while waiting for matters to be resolved by the Labour Department or Industrial Relations Department (or Labour Court). At present, a three-month special pass is issued by the Immigration Department at RM100 per month which forbids them to work.
  13. The recruitment, transportation and receipt of workers by outsourcing companies through fraud and deception (eg. jobs that do not exist; different economic sectors; different destination of work) mainly to exploit them, resulting in migrant workers becoming victims of trafficking in persons (violation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2007). The Malaysian border police and immigration authorities are said to be directly involved in human trafficking.

The signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) has led the government to amend eight labour laws in accordance with the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. These laws are the Trade Unions Act 1959, Industrial Relations Act 1967, Employment Act 1955, Sabah Labour Ordinance (Chapter 67), Sarawak Labour Ordinance (Chapter 76), Private Employment Agencies Act 1981, Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act, 1990, and the Children and Young Persons (Employment) Act 1966.

 These amendments are necessary. However, the problem lies not so much in lack of good laws but good governance. All eight laws are already in place yet the government still fails to protect and improve migrant’s welfare.

The Home Minister has listed 13 countries of migrant workers where Nepalese make up for 2,945 deaths over the course of 10 years. The number will definitely be higher if we include the data from the other 12 countries, which unfortunately are not provided by the government.

Medical welfare for migrant workers

Of the total deaths of Nepalese, 70% was due to sudden cardiac arrest. Medical care is pivotal as a preventive measure.

However, the Health Ministry has stopped subsidising the medical fees of non-locals. The increase of 70% medical costs for non-locals is expensive for lowly-paid migrant workers. This deters them from seeking professional help.

As a member of ILO, Malaysia should adhere to the “Medical Care and Sickness Benefits Convention 1969″, which states that medical care “shall be afforded with a view to maintaining, restoring or improving the health of the person protected and his ability to work and to attend to his personal needs.”

Therefore the government must not deprive basic medical care for migrant workers, the main workforce that builds the country. An assessment must be immediately initiated to determine feasible schemes to finance and facilitate the medical care of migrant workers.

Improve working conditions

The migrant workforce is essential to the construction, manufacturing, and agricultural industries which collectively contributes 35.7% to Malaysia’s gross domestic product. This means that migrants are a major part of the country’s economy.

However, as the ILO has noted, Malaysia’s “conspicuously unbalanced” migrant policy is framed as a security concern rather than viewing migrants as a major contributor to the economy. This has downplayed the importance of migrants’ working conditions.

Several reports over the last few years have highlighted the following:

  1. Nearly one-third of migrant workers employed in electronics factories were engaged in forced labour.
  2. Finnwatch’s investigation of working conditions on palm oil plantations in west Malaysia uncovered severe violations of labour rights among many of the workers interviewed: (1) wages below the statutory minimum, (2) lack of overtime pay, (3) restrictions on freedom of association, (4) gender-based discrimination, (5) imposition of large amounts of debt, and (6) withholding of documents.
  3. The United States of America’s Department of State’s 2015Trafficking-in-Persons Report found that some migrant workers on agricultural and palm oil plantations, at construction sites, in the electronic industry, and in domestic work are subjected to labour practices indicative of forced labour, such as restrictions on movement, withholding of wages, contract substitution, confiscation of passports and debt bondage.
  4. United Nations’ Special Rapporteur’s 2015 Trafficking-in-Persons mission report has documented victims of trafficking employed in agricultural, construction, manufacturing, and domestic work.
  5. Tenaganita reported hundreds of cases of forced labour that are due to physical isolation, restriction on movement, and inadequate mechanism to ensure accountability of employers.

The working conditions of migrant workers must be improved to prevent further abuses and deaths. The government’s ad hoc approach has failed to address the problem.

The maltreatment of migrants which has led to many deaths has brought disgrace to the country and also obstructed long term economic progress. The Home Ministry and the Human Resources Ministry are responsible for turning Malaysia into a death camp for migrant workers.

Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is the Special Officer to the Bukit Mertajam MP.