News: RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: UNWANTED, MIGRANT WORKERS SHORT-CHANGED

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Subject: News: RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: UNWANTED, MIGRANT WORKERS SHORT-CHANGED
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Wed Jul 21 1999 - 10:56:06 EDT


A situation ripe for traffickers.

____________________

RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: UNWANTED, MIGRANT WORKERS SHORT-CHANGED
By R Mageswary

KUALA LUMPUR, Jul. 19 InterPress Service - One minute Malaysia's migrant
workers are welcomed with open arms and in the next breath, they are told
to get out of the country, and often in no polite terms.

Whichever way, these workers are finding out that difficult times are
making them vulnerable to exploitation, and that only uncertainty seems
certain in the months ahead.

In March this year the government said financial difficulties owing to
Asia's economic crisis makes it difficult for it to continue taking in
foreign workers.

Not least, it said the earnings repatriated by the workers to their home
countries added further strain to the economy.

Then in April, the government announced it would not hesitate to engage
foreign workers to work in ports if Malaysians were not willing to do the
job. Then, it lifted the freeze on the intake of foreign workers.

April was also the government-set deadline for employers hiring foreign
workers to renew their employees' work permits and pay up a levy on hiring
such. This was later changed to mid-July and has now been extended to
August 15th.

The shifting policies in recent months, together with employers' reluctance
to pay the levy, has meant continued retrenchment for many workers and
often without proper benefits.

Failure to pay the levy makes the migrant worker in question an illegal,
overstaying foreigner.

The Immigration Department's foreign workers division, Jamil Ariffin, said
the amount of levy due from 270 employers reached 4.7 million ringgit (1.23
million U.S. dollars).

But employers are seeking the easy way out, retrenching foreign workers and
in some cases without settling their salaries.

"We receive eight complaints of retrenchments a day," says Irene Fernandez
of Tenaganita, a non-government organization that deals with problems faced
by migrant workers in the country.

She estimates that there are about 2.2 million migrant workers in Malaysia,
half of them undocumented.

They were once welcomed as precious labor needed by a labor-short economy
to build its ambitious infrastructure projects, from expressways to
skyscrapers to airports.

But their fortunes were reversed -- and the welcome mat rolled back up --
when Asia's crisis undercut once-booming sectors like real and construction
and put in peril the stay here of many migrant workers the government wants
to send home.

One worker who was recently thrown out of work is Naseem. He is a shy,
young Bangladeshi boy who was working in a factory in Kajang, 30 km away
>from the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur.

"I was earning about 500 ringgit (130 dollars) a month. I don't have any
savings and was sacked without any notice," he says.

Naseem's employer has to pay 350 ringgit ($ 92) per year in levy. Once a
foreign worker is laid off and his work permit cancelled, he becomes an
illegal worker who face deportation. But his problems do not stop there.

According to Fernandez, employers who want to retrench their workers to
avoid paying levy will often justify this move by lodging a false police
report stating their employees have run away.

Some employers forge false medical reports saying their workers are
HIV-positive, activists say. Foreign workers with infectious diseases are
immediately deported from Malaysia.

"We have a few cases where the workers who are sent back discover they are
perfectly healthy. In some bizarre cases, male workers get medical reports
stating they are pregnant," lamented Fernandez.

Unlike Naseem, 29-year-old Syed Ahmad's employer has agreed to renew his
work permit.

>From Pakistan, Naseem has been in Malaysia for the last eight years. He
works from 8 am to 11 pm everyday to earn 900 ringgit (237 dollars) a month
and shares a small house with 13 friends.

"The working condition is bad and I am not even given medical leave. I am
also not allowed to go to a panel doctor but have to fork out money to see
one," said Ahmad.

He adds that he is often harassed by policemen for failing to show his
passport, which is held by his employers though Section 26 of the
Immigration Act states it is illegal for any other person other than the
owner to hold a passport.

Retrenched workers often do not get what they due, including the
contributions they made from their salaries while employed in Malaysia to
the Employers' Provident Fund (EPF).

Foreign workers who leave the country are told to collect it in their
respective countries, but often never get their money back.

"When I was in Bangladesh, two people came to me with letters from the EPF
written in Malay. They did not understand a word of what was stated in the
letter and complained that they are yet to receive their money," recalled
Fernandez.

In fact, she says that the employers state their names as the beneficiaries
to the EPF. Such is the case with Ahmad, whose employer has listed his own
name as the beneficiary of his contributions to the fund.

"What can we do as we are at the mercy of the employers? We are also scared
to deal with the authorities, because we know that they will only listen to
the employers," Ahmad added.

Activists in Malaysia say the situation is not helped by the fact that
there is no one coordinating body handling issues pertaining to migrant
workers, though the country relied on them greatly in the boom years.

There is no clear jurisdiction of authority between the Home Ministry,
Human Resources Ministry, Immigration Department and the Labor Department,
they add.

"Foreign workers are often kicked around like a football from one
department to the other," says a social worker who declined to be named.

Fernandez has recently started a dialogue session with the Immigration
department urging them to look into the trickery played by employers who
rather get rid of their workers than pay huge sums of levy.

"We have got positive response from them. This is a start," she says.

Added Fernandez: "The current system paralyses migrant workers in their
quest for justice. We are eliminating people and I think this approach is
selfish, racist and discriminatory."


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