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LABOUR-MALAYSIA: Anwar Hits Out at Whipping of Migrant Workers

Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, Nov 15 2004 (IPS) - Former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, an icon of Malaysia’s pro-reform movement, has hit out at the Malaysian government’s threat to whip undocumented workers if they fail to take advantage of a current amnesty period to return to their home countries.

The Malaysian cabinet last week agreed to extend a 17-day amnesty period, originally expiring Nov. 14, for undocumented migrant workers to return to their own countries. Under existing laws, those without valid working documents are liable to a fine of up to 10,000 ringgit (2,600 U.S. dollars) or a jail term of up to five years or both and a whipping.

”After this (amnesty) period, we will come down hard on illegals. Don’t blame us,” Home Minister Azmi Khalid had warned at the start of the amnesty.

But Anwar, who was recently freed from prison after six years’ imprisonment, argued that if the nation did not want migrant workers without permits, they should be arrested and sent back properly.

”What happens now? They are caught, their money and hand-phones are stolen, they are whipped,” he told a crowd of 2,000 during a visit to his home-state of Penang on Nov. 5. ”If you don’t need them, fair (enough); arrest them and send them back but don’t do such things.”

The former deputy premier claimed that when he was in a cabinet committee for foreign workers in the 1990s, he did not allow a single undocumented migrant worker to be sent to jail.

Instead, they were rounded up, sent to immigration centres and then deported, he said. ”Not a single person was whipped,” he said.

”But now thousands of them have been whipped. I cannot accept this,” he stressed. ”Whether they are from Bangladesh, Indonesia or Myanmar (Burma), they are human beings. And we have been taught to respect human beings.”

On Sep.. 2, Malaysia’s Federal Court quashed a sodomy conviction against Anwar and freed him from almost six years in jail. But it denied a request to re-hear his appeal against his final charge of corruption.

Anwar said both convictions were trumped up by his former boss, then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, to ruin his political career.

One recruitment agent told IPS that he felt the government had to extend the grace period as only a small fraction of the expected number of undocumented migrant workers had taken advantage of the amnesty.

”Many of them don’t want to go back home as they are earning more money here and are repaying loans,” he said. ”Others such as the undocumented Burmese, many of whom are said to be working in construction sites and with hawkers, are reluctant to go back to conditions of abject poverty and unemployment.”

The extension to the amnesty period had been predicted by another recruitment agent late last month during an interview with IPS.

It is a case of déjà vu, he pointed out. ”During the last exercise in 2002, the amnesty period was extended three times due to various problems,” he said.

Close to half a million worried undocumented migrant workers fled for home during the mid-2002 amnesty. Then, like now, officials threatened the workers with harsh action under tough new laws, which include whipping with a thick rattan cane.

This time around, hundreds of thousands more undocumented migrants – including an estimated 400,000 from Indonesia alone – had been expected to pour out of the country during the amnesty. About 6,000 foreigners held at immigration detention centres in the country would also be allowed to leave, provided they have valid travel documents.

There are more than a million- some say it could be as high as 2.5 million – undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia. That’s between five to 10 percent of the country’s 26 million population.

In financial terms, the parties likely to gain the most from the whole exercise of regularising the undocumented workers are the Malaysian government and the private firm conducting health tests for migrant workers, Fomema.

Apart from transport costs, each Indonesian worker who is regularised as a documented worker would have to pay the usual 1,325 ringgit (348 U.S. dollars) Malaysian government levy and 180 ringgit (47 dollars) for medical tests. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of workers and the total receivable would run into hundreds of millions of ringgit.

The current amnesty was offered by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi during a meeting with new Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Oct. 20.

After the meeting, Abdullah said the amnesty would be given to undocumented workers who returned to Indonesia ahead of Aidil Fitri, the Muslim festival that falls in mid- November, after the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Though Malaysia had in principle agreed to Susilo’s request for the amnesty to continue until Dec. 31, the new deadline would be set after detailed discussions with the Indonesian government following Aidil Fitri, said Home Minister Azmi Khalid last week.

Ironically, some of the departing workers are expected to come back to Malaysia to work after being granted amnesty.

A cartoon in ‘The Star’ newspaper recently showed a column of undocumented Indonesian workers leaving through an open-door of a house (bearing the name ‘Malaysia: Amnesty programme’) – only for them to circle around the premises and re-enter the house through a door at the rear.

It’s not far from the truth.

Migrant workers are still much needed in construction sites, plantations and the service industry. But premier Abdullah has warned that those who come back to Malaysia would not be allowed to re-enter without the right documents.

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