03 March 2007

Malaysia tries to shackle foreign workers

Asian Times, Mar 3, 2007

By Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR - A plan by the Malaysian government to confine some 2.8 million foreign workers to their ramshackle living quarters in an effort to curb rising crime rates has outraged critics, who describe the move as a deplorable act of discrimination against an already vulnerable migrant community and a violation of international labor regulations.

Foreign workers, opposition lawmakers, trade union officials and human-rights activists have come together to denounce the controversial plan, scheduled to be tabled in parliament in March. "The plan discriminates and promotes prejudice against migrant

workers. It is unbelievable," said Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a non-governmental organization dedicated to helping migrant workers. "These measures are against international labor rules and codes."

The measures are said to be part of a major policy shift in the government's management of foreign workers from the Human Resources Ministry to the Home Affairs Ministry which, some critics say, blanket categorizes migrant workers as a security problem. Under the proposed legislation, many functions traditionally handled by the Human Resources, Tourism and Health ministries will now come under Home Affairs, which oversees police, international security and the People's Volunteer Corps.

There are currently an estimated 800,000 undocumented migrant workers in the country. Under the plan, the workers, mostly employed in the construction, manufacturing and plantation sectors, will be confined to their ramshackle quarters - known locally as kongsi - which usually consist of zinc roofing sheets and plywood and are located inside or near their workplaces. The proposed rule will apply even on their days of rest, when many off-duty workers head for the cinemas, shopping complexes or beer parlors.

If the new law is passed, it will see them confined to their quarters unless they have express permission from their employers to leave their workplaces. Employers will also be required to keep a logbook detailing the daily movements of their foreign employees for spot inspections by police. "This way we can keep track of the workers and arrest them if they are involved in crime," said Musa Hassan, the inspector-general of police.

Xenophobic blame game
While police statistics reveal that serious crime in Malaysia climbed 40% year-on-year in 2006, only 2% of criminal incidents were directly attributable to foreign workers. However, the state-controlled media, nationalistic lawmakers and the general public frequently blame foreign workers, who account for 12% of the total workforce of 12 million.

The bulk of the blame falls on Indonesians, who form 65% of the foreign workforce, followed by Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Indians and Vietnamese. Police estimate that an additional 700,000, mostly Indonesians, are employed in Malaysia without valid work documents. The new proposed measures have come under heavy criticism, with international rights groups, including London-based Amnesty International (AI), which has said migrant workers, like ordinary people, are entitled to fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Malaysia's own constitution.

"This includes the right to liberty and security; to equality before the law without discrimination, the right to freedom of movement as well as to the presumption of innocence," said AI country director Josef Roy Benedict. "These measures are themselves human-rights violations and a form of punishment," he said, adding that a person's liberty can be suspended only if he is proved to have committed a crime that warrants imprisonment by a court of law and after a fair trial.

AI warned that the use of migrants as scapegoats for criminal acts will increase racial and xenophobic prejudice against the migrant community in Malaysia. The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also condemned the government's plan to, what it said "virtually locks up workers". In a statement, the rights group said the resulting isolation would also put migrant workers at risk of other abuses.

"Instead of improving the situation, Malaysia's proposed foreign worker bill will dramatically worsen the situation," said Nisha Varia, senior researcher on women's rights in Asia for HRW. "It's shocking that Malaysia is even considering such a proposal that would give employers freedom to lock up workers."

Even the semi-official New Straits Times daily newspaper voiced apprehension, saying it is questionable whether controlling the movement of foreign workers will "quell the rising tide of crime". "The question is whether confinement would be a justifiable pre-emptive measure - in terms of fair treatment of the foreign workers and the extra responsibilities that would be visited upon the employer to make sure that his workers stay confined, and presumably out of mischief," the daily said in a February 20 editorial.

"In addition, the cramped and sometimes deplorable living conditions in the typical kongsi are hardly conditions one should want to confine workers within," the daily said. "Such well-meaning solutions may work in an ideal world. But in the present circumstances, given the sheer numbers and distribution of foreign workers in Malaysia and the remoteness of many worksites using these workers, such measures might not only be unenforceable but might well create new problems without solving the ones they target."

Critics note that existing rules already severely restrict migrant workers. For instance, they are barred from marrying local women, opening bank accounts, changing jobs or traveling. "They are constantly stopped, questioned and arrested even when they have valid documents," said Fernandez.

Foreign workers, too, have expressed dismay at the open discrimination. "This is a form of slavery," said Ahmed Badulla, 27, an iron foundry worker from Pakistan. "We are so busy working day and night to send money home. How can we commit crimes?"

His Pakistani co-worker, Tajul Mohideen, added: "This country is very rich and there are lots of jobs, but there is a lot of discrimination too."

(Inter Press Service)

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