Malaysiakini Letter

We have failed our foreign workers

Jasmine Cho
Published:

LETTER | One of the darkest and most disturbing realities in Malaysia is its treatment of foreign workers. While it is a problem that ought to be highlighted daily, never is it more relevant to lament the inhumane conditions of our foreign workers than on International Migrants Day today.

International Migrants day is a day to highlight the contributions made by migrants and emphasise the challenges that they face. I am ashamed to say that Malaysia presents one of the starkest and unjust realities for those who move here looking to better their lives.

According to unofficial estimates, there are up to six million foreign workers in Malaysia. This labour force is separated into 2.27 million legal workers and 2.5 to 3.37 million illegal foreign workers.

Foreign workers represent 31-40 percent of the Malaysian workforce, yet they are almost exclusively found in jobs known for the “3Ds” (dirty, dangerous and difficult).

There is no winning for these foreign workers. Those who wish to go the legal route are slapped with exorbitant fees by recruitment agencies which leave them in debt. The language barrier and unfamiliarity make them easy targets for deceit, and they are often trapped in abusive working conditions. The stories of employers withholding passports and wages are neverending.

The fact that the mistreatment of legal foreign workers is ignored by authorities plus the exorbitant fees they must pay before inheriting their working visas often encourage foreign workers to go the illegal route. Here is where the real problems begin - there is absolutely no code of conduct among illegal migrant workers and their living conditions are deplorable. It is a lose-lose situation.

There was a case yesterday of a Klang-based cleaning service which was raided after a group of former employees complained about their exploitation which included non-payment of their wages and other forced labor elements. The cleaning service has also been accused of farming out women to be domestic helpers. Whenever an employee tried to complain, they were instantly fired.

In October, another case of foreign worker abuse was publicised when the Trump administration announced a ban on a Malaysian rubber glove manufacturer due to indications of forced labor. The company, called WPR, was accused of passport confiscations, illegal withholding of wages, restricted freedom of movement and threatening their workers.

There is a frighteningly high possibility of injuries and lost limbs for those foreigners working in deplorable conditions. Sickening statistics have been reported, claiming that an average of two Bangladeshi workers die in workplace-related accidents each day.

Women who come to Malaysia looking for sustainable income often become domestic workers. Over the years there have been an escalating number of reports of injustices. Cases of torture, cruelty and sexual abuse of domestic maids are prevalent. So much so that it has even strained diplomatic relations between Malaysia and Indonesia, the nationality of many of these workers who are abused or even die as a result of workplace violence.

You may ask, if their treatment is so despicable, why do they not do something about it?

Consider this - there are no formal channels for foreign workers, legal or not, to bring up work grievances or make complaints. They are not represented by trade unions, government agencies do not come and check their welfare and by the time it may get to their respective embassies or high commissions … it is far too late.

In this "new Malaysia", the government is meant to take action and enforce greater human rights as was promised before Pakatan Harapan was elected. Our foreign workers human rights have been trampled upon and spat on for far too long. 

This International Migrants Day, we demand action be taken. A human life is a human life, and none should be treated as we have seen our migrant workers being treated time and time again. 


The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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