Victims of vast fraud, thousands of migrant workers suffer intimidation and mistreatment, alerts Irene Fernandez, Executive Director of the Malaysian NGO Tenaganita
Most of these legal migrants entered the country legally through outsourcing companies based in their home country, or in Malaysia. But, fearing they may run away before paying back money due to the outsourcing agencies (equivalent to several months of salary), these companies confiscate the workers' passports, resulting in a situation of forced labour.
The Malaysian government initiated in 2011 the 6P amnesty and legalization program to ensure that all migrant workers are registered in a national data system through a biometric system. During this 6P program, 4.6 million migrants were registered, where 50% of which were undocumented. Half a million of undocumented workers opted to seek amnesty and return to their home country.
The problem arose when the Home Ministry, instead of giving the full responsibility to the Immigration department to register and manage the 6P program, delegated certain tasks involved to outsourcing companies. By delegating power to the outsourcing agencies, this distorted the way the 6P program was supposed to work.
Eventually, these companies charged high legalization fees ranging from 3,000 RM ($920) to 4,000 RM ($1,230) to legalize a worker, equivalent to 3.5 to 4.5 months of their minimum wage, which is 900 RM ($280) a month for 48 hours of work per week). They also charged 300 RM ($92) per worker to register them into the biometric system when the government had announced it would cost only 35 RM ($11).
As a consequence, thousands of workers remained undocumented at the end of the program.
Cheating organised by the outsourcing companies
Moreover, some agents or sub-agents collected money and passports, but did not create the worker's application. Thousands of other workers were forced to accept work permits made under "shell companies", i.e., registered companies without any operations. Workers were then forced to search for their own jobs elsewhere, which are not recognised by the Home Ministry because a migrant worker can only work for the company identified on the work permit.
Since 2011, hundreds of migrant workers filed police reports regarding the illegal activities of the outsourcing companies. Since then, the Malaysian NGO Tenaganita alerted the government that more than 30,000 workers had been cheated under the 6P program, and that serious interventions were needed.
In 2012, Tenaganita handled over 10,000 cases of affected workers informing the police, the Immigration Department, the Human Resources Ministry, the Home Ministry and the Human Rights Commission that 55 outsourcing agents were involved. Almost two years have passed and in spite of numerous media statements and reports, the workers have not received justice. In "passing the buck" to outsourcing companies and private agents, the government did not put in place a system of monitoring or oversight.
Instead of making the outsourcing companies accountable for the fraud, cheating and violence against the workers, and make the employers liable to ensure that their workers are legalized, the government has organized a crackdown against the migrant workers themselves.
Between January 21 and February 9 2014, there were 438 nationwide operations to screen 16,000 foreigners, according to Aloyah Mamat, Director General of the Immigration Department.
Double sentence for the migrant workers
Migrant workers are condemned twice: they were charged a very high price for the permit to work in Malaysia - equivalent to several months, to several years, of salary. And they must pay again corrupted companies- sometimes the same ones- to stay in the country.
It is quite clear that they live in intense fear as the crackdowns are a severe threat to their security and safety. Thousands of workers, including asylum seekers, remain in hiding in the jungles. In one area, there are over 3,000 in the jungles, without enough food and water.
According to testimonies collected by Tenaganita, the workers are confronted daily by the enforcement agencies in the companies where they work who strip search them. Some demand money, or even sex from women migrant workers.
The NGO has got stories of police demanding 500 RM ($155) to 1,000 RM ($310), half to one month salary, for the release of a worker prior to being sent to the Immigration retention center. Friends of migrant workers had to pay 100 RM ($31) to visit the arrested worker at the police station. Another worker said that despite having a passport with work permit, to avoid arrest, he had to pay 100 RM ($31) to the police officer. At every stage, the migrant worker has to pay to "remain" safe.
An inhumane and corrupt system
In the detention centers, the migrant workers face both inhumane living conditions and a lack of access to health care. The centers' are overcrowded, with a lack of facilities. If the workers want to make a phone call, they are be required to pay 50 RM ($16). One worker who returned to Nepal told Tenaganita that the officer called his family back home, and demanded 1,000 RM for the air ticket, if they wanted their son to return home. The migrant worker returned on an Air Asia flight that costs only 400 RM.
Of course, the NGOs have no access to the detention camps. There are no clear standard operating procedures. And if there were, there is no transparency. No one is made accountable for the abuse or violence perpetrated against the migrants. The enforcement officers act with impunity.
After closer examination of the outsourcing companies, it has become apparent that many of them are former Ministers, like in the case of SNT Outsourcing company, whose director is a former Home Minister. Other directors are state leaders of UMNO, the current party in power.
So, in spite of the amnesty or legalization process, the situation of the migrant workers in Malaysia remains precarious. Even if they have a job and entered legally in the country, they are pushed into a corner where even if they try to legalize themselves, they remain undocumented and continue to be in conditions of forced labour.
By Irène Fernandez, Nobel Prize Alternate, 2005, and Director of Tenaganita, Martine Combemale, Executive Director, Human Resources Without Borders.
Irene Fernandez died on 31st March 2014, a few weeks after writing this article.