Migrant workers left with little to celebrate

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2007, 12:00am

As Malaysia celebrates its 50th independence anniversary today, it is caught in a widening diplomatic row over its treatment of Indonesian workers who make up nearly half of its 3 million migrant workers.

An incident last Friday highlighted the situation. Police allegedly bashed a man they suspected of being an illegal immigrant, breaking his ribs and leaving him with an array of injuries. The man, it turns out, was Donald Luther Kolobita - the head coach of an Indonesian karate team.

Kolobita called Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to protest, setting off a week of demonstrations against Malaysia in a row that is overshadowing celebrations.

'The assault happens frequently to migrant workers' said Adele Fernandez, the senior officer overseeing migrant workers' welfare at Tenaganita, a leading human rights NGO. 'Malaysia treats its foreign workers very badly, almost like dirt. They are also heavily worked and poorly paid.

'The simple ugly truth is that we cannot do without them ... period. I fear we will never learn to treat them as humans.'

When Malaysia was born, half its population consisted of Chinese and Indian immigrants who became citizens upon independence.

'Our forefathers were magnanimous and exploited diversity and forged a vibrant plural nation,' said opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok. 'Today our economy would collapse without them. The least we can do is make them feel welcome.'

The army of foreign workers - mostly Indonesian, but also from India, mainland China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Africa - do the manual and unskilled jobs that Malaysians refuse to do.

Periodically, when public pressure mounts, the government announces ambitious plans to automate industries to do away with the need for foreign labour. But none of the plans have taken off.

'The cheap labour is a godsend for business,' said Sivananthan Arumugam, a senior trade union official.

He accused the government of turning a blind eye to about 1.5 million more migrants who work illegally, pushing down wages.

Despite the tough living conditions, migrant workers sent home about M$20 billion (HK$44.5 billion) last year - an important lifeline for many Asian families.

The government estimates 5 million migrant workers will be needed by 2010 - 30 per cent of the workforce. It is an admission that they are a permanent Malaysian feature.

But they can't marry locals, open bank accounts, move freely or change jobs. They can't study or raise a family and must surrender their passport to their employers. Worse, employers can terminate their work permits immediately, making them illegal immigrants.

Once they have completed a three-year contract, foreign workers must return home. Periodically, the government offers amnesties to illegal workers to return home without arrest - but they are then blacklisted and not permitted to re-enter.

'Migrants live in cheap flats sometimes 20 to a room,' said Zafar Ahmad, a Rakhine refugee from Myanmar who has lived in the country for over 20 years. He is one of about 25,000 'stateless' Rakhine in Malaysia.

'We have seen many independence days come and go but our plight remains unresolved.'