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Malaysian: Hell for Foreign Workers?

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Download Malaysia’s unenviable record on the treatment of migrant workers is in the spotlight again, after three Indonesians were shot dead by police.

They were suspected of committing robbery.

While many Malaysians wait for their Indonesian maids to arrive, migrant rights activist Irene Fernandez says the country is unsafe for foreign workers.

Some politicians immediately branded Fernandez as ‘unpatriotic’ for tarnishing the country’s image.

But how bad is Malaysia for foreign workers?

Clarence Chua finds out for Asia Calling.

Chow Kit Road is one of the many places in Kuala Lumpur where you’ll find a large Indonesian community.

There are Indonesian food stalls, you can listen to Indonesian music and even find an Indonesian bank to send money back home.

35-year old Junaidi has been living in Malaysia for the last 15 years.

I ask him whether he feels threatened living here.

“When we talk about the police, it is common knowledge. It’s a well-known fact that they will ask us for bribe money. Even if we have permits and passports, they will still say those are fake.”

Junaidi hasn’t faced police violence himself.

But tensions flared again between Indonesia and Malaysia, after police shot and killed three suspected Indonesian robbers last month.

This isn’t the first time that’s happened. Malaysian police also shot and killed three Indonesian workers in 2005 – claiming that they’d committed robberies and resisted arrest.

In response to the shootings, Indonesia’s daily English language newspaper The Jakarta Post interviewed migrant rights activist Irene Fernandez of the NGO Tenaganita.

“The position I took was that the police have no right to shoot anyone it has to go all out to catch the suspected criminal and not shoot people to death. I think it is so crucial that we come to terms with the truth. Migrants have very limited access to justice.”

And because of that, she said the Indonesian government should not resume sending workers to Malaysia.

Government politicians jumped on Fernandez’s statement, calling her unpatriotic.

She was hauled up for questioning by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission – the police have even threatened to investigate her for “sedition”.

Fernandez’s critics say Malaysia has about four million documented and undocumented migrant workers – so surely a few cases of abuse do not justify so much bad press.

But only highlighting cases of abuse from authorities doesn’t give the complete picture.

Migrant workers also need access to justice – and that can be hard to find.

Junaidi says the problem starts on the job itself.

“Discrimination usually comes from the employer. We only meet the police once in a month. I think it is safe here but many domestic helpers or restaurant workers do face some problems. Many Indonesians work in Chinese restaurants and many are Muslims. I’ve witnessed in Kelana Jaya. I asked why do they work in a Chinese restaurant where they mostly serve pork which is not allowed for Muslims? But they say what can they do? That’s their job.”

But it’s the domestic workers that suffer the most – and they can be at real risk.

Alex Ong is the founder of the NGO Migrant Care.

“The female worker is more open to more exploitation and more problems. Most of these workers work in a bonded environment. They face problem they cannot seek help and their passports are withheld and many are illiterate or lowly educated. And there are many situations where the domestic worker is supposed to work as a domestic worker but they are also supposed to help their employer to work in the shop. Many of them encounter long working hours with very low pay.”

Part of the problem is lack of data. Although it hosts millions of migrant workers, Malaysia’s government does not publish detailed information on their situation.

Migrant rights NGOs like Tenaganita gather some data – but they can’t cover everything.

Director Irene Fernandez says they’re only a small organisation. But this year alone, they’ve already received close to 500 cases of migrant worker rights violations.

“For a short period, that number of cases, that is a high figure for us already. If you look at the violations at other places where are they going to go to? The top five violations have been the withholding of passports. The next is the unpaid wages. And then abuse and violence is very high and very recently we have a domestic worker who died of starvation. The other is sexual violence and from the women migrants who come in 36% alleged they are sexually molested or raped. Those are serious concerns that threaten the safety of migrant workers”.

The number of domestic workers sent to Malaysia has decreasd since 2009, when both Cambodia and Indonesia banned their maids from working there after multiple cases of physical abuse.

Indonesia was supposed to lift the ban early this year, after Malaysia agreed to grant maids a day off and a bank account to remit money.

But now Jakarta is demanding a minimum wage of 230 US dollars a month, and that their maids are employed for only one job – without holding multiple duties.

Fernandez says negotiations around lifting the ban shouldn’t be limited to a few select issues.

She believes the focus should be on a comprehensive solution to protect migrant workers – and that means a standard contract for all workers, not individual arrangements between countries.

“I would say Malaysia and Indonesia need to change. I think we need to define what are the areas of work that need to be addressed in the contract. So a standardized contract. It cannot be one contract for the Indonesians, another for Cambodians and another for Filipinas”.


Last Updated ( Sunday, 03 June 2012 16:27 )  

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