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20 September, 2017 11:19:54 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 20 September, 2017 11:23:05 AM

Thank them and not handcuff them

The relatively developed Asian country Malaysia is a magnet for migrant workers from across Asia, but several million of them are believed to be undocumented
Prof. Sarwar Md. Saifullah Khaled
Thank them and not handcuff them

As part of a fresh crackdown of late on illegal immigration Malaysian authorities have raided a construction site and detained 77 foreigners. The immigration officials said since a major crackdown or sweep began on July 1, 2017 more than 3,100 undocumented migrant workers and 63 employers who allegedly hired workers illegally have been detained or rounded up as of July 11, 2017 at a construction site in the coastal town of Port Dickson. This action prompted alarm from lawmakers across the region who said the campaign was “victimising the vulnerable”.
The relatively developed Asian country Malaysia is a magnet for migrant workers from across Asia, but several million of them are believed to be undocumented. According to the immigration department, Malaysian authorities started rounding up illegal workers after an official programme to register undocumented foreigners ended on June 30, 2017. Bangladeshis represent the largest group among those detained, with substantial numbers also from Indonesia and Myanmar.
The crackdown is mainly targeting migrants who come from different countries from across Asia to Malaysia illegally to work mostly in low-wage jobs in the construction, plantation and manufacturing industries. Malaysia being one of the South East Asia's richest countries has long attracted workers from several nearby nations such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and India. Immigration officials conducted the midnight raid on July 11, 2017 and early July 12, 2017 at the construction site in northern Negeri Sembilan state. They found that 77 of the 85 workers had no valid documents. Most of them are Indonesians. They are living in wooden make-shift dormitories at the site. The media were notified of the raid and invited to go along with them. The 77 workers were handcuffed and sent to the immigration depot. The officials said that from there they are expected to be deported.     

A large number of both legal and illegal foreign workers including Bangladeshis have gone into hi¬ding fearing enforcement, and their employers fear they will not turn up for work until things have cooled down. Among the industries, the construction and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are badly af¬fected. The raids at construction sites will scare these workers from showing up for work; the Master Builders Association Malaysia president Foo Chek Lee. Foo said that this will jeopardise productivity, which will also affect the construction industry which is one of the key drivers of his country's economy. He suggested that "Since the Government is not extending the deadline for the Enforcement Card (E-Card) registration, we urge all contractors to quickly go for the rehiring process to save themselves unnecessary legal problems". Foo said that the members facing problems with rehiring could approach the association, which is working with Construction Labour Exchange Centre Bhd, for help.  

Foo Chek Lee said that during a raid, contractors will have no choice but to stop work while the workers are being screened. He apprehended that "The overhead itself will 'kill' us. We may also get (hit with) liquida¬ted ascertained damages (LAD) for compensation of late delivery. These are very costly". It is further mentioned that some of the workers were also without employers, especially those supplied by agents. The bosses with such illegal workers found it difficult to get them registered. This was because the agents supplying the workers were not registered under the Construction Indus¬try Development Board (CIDB). When these workers are taken in, contractors are not sure if they are blacklisted (or) mentally fit or not.

Moreover, the contractors have to send them back home at their own costs when they go for the E-Card and if they are rejected. They also have to pay RM 600 in advance for the rehiring programme when applying for the E-Card and there is no refund if the applications fail. These are some of the factors that made employers reluctant to register their illegal fo¬reign workers. Datuk Seri Tan Thian Poh of the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia said small businesses would be most affected by the recent crackdown.

On the other side, as for Bangladesh, the economic health of the country largely depends on the remittance inflow from workers abroad. Though the remittance inflow has a major contribution to Bangladesh's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the country’s expatriate workers suffer abject neglect at home and abroad. Bangladeshi workers working abroad fall victims to utter repression and deprivation and they work under intolerable or unbearable working condition. They continue to work for 12 to 18 hours a day braving the inclement weather facing the gross violation of human rights to build those nations. They do also not get any help from Bangladesh mission abroad for the amelioration of their unfavourable or distressing condition in foreign countries. They are working hard for the growth of the economy of the countries they are living and working in as well as earning foreign exchange to enrich our public exchequer to foot the import bills and meet development costs.

However, Malaysia is being condemned for the crackdown on migrant workers. The recent crackdown by Malaysia on the migrant workers including Bangladeshis prompted alarm and condemnation from all quarters home and abroad. Over three thousand workers including 1700 Bangladeshis have been rounded up and this act has been called “victimising the vulnerables” across the region. The migrants' rights group leaders in Malaysia said that "We should thank the migrant workers and not handcuff them" since they immensely contribute to the development of the Malaysian economy.

The clampdown has also caused alarm among Malaysian human right activists and in neighbouring countries. And a group representing current and former lawmakers from across Southeast Asia added their voice to the concern. Cambodian lawmaker Mu Sochua, a board member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said that a desire to decrease the number of undocumented workers in the country can never be an excuse to further victimise the vulnerable. While Malaysia has a legitimate need to address the fact that so many migrants find themselves without proper paperwork, it must ensure that basic human rights are respected for all people at all times.

Aegile Fernandez, director of prominent Malaysian migrant rights group Tenaganita, said that the real culprits were unscrupulous agents. They extorted money from foreign workers in exchange for bringing them to the country, leaving them saddled with huge debts. She, however, told that “Malaysia would not have developed so much if not for migrant workers. We should (in consequence) thank them and not handcuff them”. More than 60 employers who allegedly hired illegal foreign workers have also been arrested. Migrant workers typically do jobs such as on construction sites and palm oil plantations, spurned by locals.
A recent report says, however, that as regards the Bangladeshi expatriate workers the Bangladesh minister for Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment on July 17, 2017 said that Malaysian authorities would not detain any Bangladeshi workers until December 2017 as Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur agreed in solving the illegal workers’ issue through discussions. If such an agreement can also solve the problem of the already detained Bangladeshi expatriate workers in Malaysia then well and fine.       

The writer is a retired Professor of Economics, BCS General Education  Cadre



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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