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LABOUR-MALAYSIA: Recession to Hit Migrant Workers Hard

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 27 2008 (IPS) - As recession looms large on the horizon, migrant workers like 27-year-old Kumar Palanisamy from Chennai in India are the first on the chopping block.

“My employer told me I have a job up to December…after that nobody knows,” said Kumar who works as a production operator with a furniture manufacturer exporting to the United States and China.

“I don’t want to lose my job or get deported,” he said, eyes brimming with tears. “I have a family to support and a Rs 40,000 (800 US dollars) debt to settle.”

It is a time of great unease for Malaysia’s estimated 3.5 million legal and illegal, low-paid foreign workers who face a dreadful future in an unfriendly country as a global financial meltdown begins to take effect.

It does not help that neighbouring Singapore, already in recession, is expected to retrench workers and some 300,000 Malaysians working there have suddenly become vulnerable.

The government has already formed a special task force that will find ways to accommodate retrenched Malaysians returning not only from Singapore but also Taiwan, Japan and the Middle East.

“The foreign workers are at the lowest rungs of the scale and already vulnerable. It is now a question of how soon recession will hit the country,” labour leader Siva Nathan told IPS. “When that happens, the migrant workers will be the first to go,” he said.

Already there are signs of an official toughening of the attitudes against migrant workers, 2.2 million of whom are documented while the rest are considered “illegal immigrants.”

Malaysia’s notorious ‘RELA’, an untrained and voluntary uniformed body, is already stepping up raids across the country to arrest undocumented workers and deport them.

Immigration authorities have issued warnings that Malaysians found harbouring or renting premises to “illegal immigrants” would be fined or jailed, a move that is likely to unload hundreds and thousands of undocumented migrant workers now living in “rabbit warren’’ housing in shanty towns.

“They would be homeless and out in the open, and easily rounded up,” said a senior RELA officer on condition of anonymity. “We are sympathetic, but we have received our orders…the rule now is jobs are first for locals. We have to protect ourselves now as mass layoffs are possible with the world economy taking such a big hit.”

Malaysia’s deputy prime minister Najib Razak, who is set to take over as prime minister from Abdullah Badawi in March 2009, is already gearing the government to tighten belts and save as many jobs as possible for the locals.

Razak said while the economy is likely to grow by five percent in 2008, growth in 2009 is expected to nosedive as the economies of U.S., Europe and East Asia contract or even go into recession.

He told parliament, last week, that the government was taking steps to reduce the number of foreign workers by 400,000 a year from now until 2010.

Almost 26 percent of Malaysia’s trade is with the U.S. and a key area is electronics where order books are beginning to shrink, manufacturers said.

External demand for electrical and electronic goods in particular will weaken significantly in 2009 when Malaysia’s key export markets, the U.S. and Europe, are predicted to be in recession, finance ministry officials said.

A cutback in production by giants Sony and Samsung means a drop in electronic chip production and eventual closure of plants and loss of jobs.

“There is all round fear among the 13 million-strong labour force,’’ said Irene Fernandez, executive director of TENAGANITA, a rights NGO helping to protect migrant workers from exploitation. “However, migrant workers are the most vulnerable and they live and work in a society very unfriendly to foreigners,” she told IPS.

“The laws, rules, regulations and practices and official attitudes are all unfriendly,” she said. “If the economy woes worsen the environment can turn hostile.’’

Malaysia’s trade unions, while expressing sympathy for migrant workers, are moving in fast to protect jobs for local workers and those returning home after losing their jobs overseas.

“It is unfortunate but we have to defend our jobs, our rice bowls,” said Sinnapan Arumugam, a worksite supervisor and union leader in a manufacturing factory in Bayan Lepas industrial hub in northern Penang state.

“This is the case under the law…locals come first,” he told IPS referring to Malaysian labour laws that state that in the event of retrenchment local workers are the last to be axed.

Annually migrant workers – mostly in the plantations, manufacturing, construction and service sectors – remit home an estimated RM18 billion (five billion US dollars) to their families across Asia, keeping them in relative comfort.

The majority of the migrant workers are from neighbouring Indonesia while the rest come from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal and most recently from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. They are driven to migrate by poverty in their home countries.

The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers estimated that the “casual workers” or illegal migrants in local parlance are the most vulnerable in the impending slowdown and recession.

“There has been a huge increase in foreign casual workers in recent years and they would be the most affected,’’ federation president Yong Poh Kan told local newspapers.

Labour experts and rights activists say it is important for the authorities to plan how to handle the crisis in an intelligent and humanitarian manner to ensure that foreign workers are not just bundled into ships and deported.

“Without the foreign labour we would not have been able to develop so rapidly,” said Fernandez. “We cannot just use and discard them as we like.”

“There is an urgent need to develop a comprehensive policy that is respectful and humanitarian with payment of adequate retrenchment and other benefits,” she added.

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