KUALA LUMPUR — After seven years as an undocumented migrant worker in Malaysia, waiter Ko Saw knows well the tough grind facing his compatriots in one of Southeast Asia’s more advanced economies.
“In my seven years here I have only been caught once by the police,” he recalls, over a dish of deep-fried Burmese snacks at an open-air row of Asian street restaurants in the Puchong 12 district of Kuala Lumpur.
The signs around are in Burmese, Chinese, Thai and Bahasa Indonesia — as well as in English and Bahasa Malaysia — and the staff at the restaurants are all immigrant workers.
“I was taken to Semenya detention center,” he says, half-smiling through a slow, rueful shake of the head. “However, I was lucky. It was not so crowded then, so we did not have such a bad time of it.”
“I still have to watch for police, and try to avoid them,” he says. “I cannot afford not to work, as my parents are over 70 and need whatever money I can send back to them in Rangoon each month.”
Ko Saw earns 500 Malaysian ringgit (US $166) per month, of which he needs 300 to 400 ringgit to survive. “My boss provides accommodation,” he says.
If an amnesty for illegal migrant workers is put in place, stories such as Ko Saw’s might become less common in future. Malaysia was scheduled to implement an amnesty starting on Monday, July 11, but the country’s Home Minister Hishammudin Hussein said the program would be postponed indefinitely—an announcement revised yesterday by Ministry Secretary Mahmood Adam, who said that the program, code-named “6P,” will be implemented on August 1.
Mahmood said that the rest of July would be given over to biometric registration of legal workers, which he said would enable the Immigration Department to identify foreign workers who ran away from their employers. Those caught would not be permitted to legalize under the new system and could face deportation to their country of origin.
There are an estimated two million registered migrant workers in Malaysia, with hundreds of thousands more illegal or unregistered. Around a quarter of this number are thought to be from Burma, and of those, perhaps 200,000 are undocumented, and therefore at constant risk of arrest, detention and deportation back to Burma, according to Tun Tun, head of the Burma Campaign Malaysia (BCM), an NGO established in 2008 that seeks to assist Burmese migrants.
“Sometimes they are held in the detention center for six months,” says Tun Tun, pointing with his thumb back over his left shoulder. “The nearest one is close to here,” he says in an interview at the BCM office, close to an industrial estate in the southern suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, where many migrant workers from Burma, Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh and elsewhere are employed.
Kyaw Thel is a supervisor at Sunshine, overseeing the work of 28 mostly Burmese and Bangladeshi workers in a workshop making “mostly electronic gates and steel furniture,” he says.
In the foreground sparks fly as welders work on gates and steel doors, while some of the other workers laugh and crack jokes in Burmese about Kyaw Thel’s prodigious capacity for after-hours drinking.
Kyaw Thel laughs off the banter, saying, “If only I had the time and money for that. I have family in Burma and have to save up to send money back.”
Originally from Sagaing Division in Burma, he has been in Malaysia for six years. “I work hard, but it’s not so bad for me here,” he says, “I earn 1,800 ringgit ($600) per month.” He says he will stay in Malaysia for now, as “things are not so good in Burma for the economy or for business.”
Millions of Burmese have left their impoverished and economically-stagnant country — which is rich in natural resources such as gas, oil and gemstones — to earn a living elsewhere in Southeast Asia, risking exploitation and abuse in menial and often low-paying employment.
Life is harsh for many migrant workers in Malaysia, according to Kuala Lumpur-based trade union lawyer Peter Kandiah, who works closely with the BCM.
“There is really little or no protection here for migrant workers,” he says. “Companies hold employees’ passports, effectively taking workers hostage. Migrant labor is abused in this country, and the cases I hear about or try to help with, well I can say that these are just the tip of the iceberg.”
He adds that: “The various departments often pass the buck, and the police usually do nothing. In fact sometimes they are a problem, and seek to extort vulnerable migrant workers, especially those without legal documents.”
Malaysia was again named by the US Government on its latest ‘watchlist’ for countries where human trafficking takes place, with migrant workers vulnerable to trafficking, especially when travelling without documentation or working illegally.
The Malaysian Government says that it is trying to address the issue, and says that the proposed worker amnesty will help curb human trafficking.
In a recently-leaked 2006 diplomatic cable from US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was described as “a destination, and to a lesser extent, a transit country for men and women trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labour”, with some economic migrants from neighbouring countries facing “exploitative conditions in Malaysia that meet the definition of involuntary servitude”.
The proposed amnesty could alleviate some of these concerns, and Malaysia is not the only country in the region that is trying to find a way to control large-scale illegal migration. Thailand has introduced a registration process for illegal migrant workers, which is running from June 15-July 14. To date, it has registered 763,000 migrant workers, including 515,000 Burmese.
Andy Hall, a migration policy analyst at Thailand’s Mahidol University, says that the Thai process “has been a huge success in a short period of time,” with almost two million migrant workers now registered in total in Thailand.
Similar to the Thai scheme, under the new Malaysian amnesty, employers will be expected to pick up the tab for registering their illegal workers, at a proposed cost of a 4,000 ringgit ($1,330) per candidate. In Thailand, the formal cost is between 2,900 and 3,900 baht ($96-129), excluding broker fees, much less than the expected cost in Malaysia.
The price-tag alone could undermine the overall scheme, once it is introduced on Aug 1.“The success of such a registration scheme depends greatly on the financial cost, which can make it more or less attractive to the worker and the employer,” said Hall.
A Chinese-Malaysian businessman — who owns two coffee shops and rents stall-space to some of the migrants doing well enough to own their own shop — said that he would cover the cost for the dozen unregistered migrant workers in his pay.
Giving his name only as David, he said: “There are pros and cons to this scheme for the employer. It is expensive and many might try to evade it or shift the cost,” he said, adding that he would work within the law.
Disputing the view that all migrant worker employers in Malaysia exploit their staff, he said, “Look, I know that some Chinese here are very harsh and break the law, but for me, I treat my staff as human beings.”
“I have a high turnover of workers. Some leave without telling me first,” he says. “I even loaned 3,000 ringgit ($1,000) to one guy who had been working for me for two years, as he said his dad had passed away. But the guy just disappeared with the money.”
“I’ll never get that back, and I canceled his work permit after that,” said David.Show