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Saturday, December 7, 2013
- Foreign workers, mostly from Indonesia, now make up just over 10 percent of Malaysia’s workforce of 14 million people, both in the formal and informal sectors, according to the latest government statistics.
A recent series of incidents has highlighted the shocking conditions in which these labourers toil and exposed the lengths to which the Malaysian government will go to keep the press quiet on the plight of immigrants in the country.
Prominent human rights activist and long-time champion of exploited foreign workers, Irene Fernandez, has come under severe attacks from government ministers and employers for an interview she gave a Jakarta newspaper in which she condemned poor governance and alleged that migrant workers felt “unsafe” in Malaysia.
In the Apr. 30 interview Fernandez, president of Tenaganita (Women’s Force) and winner of the Right Livelihood Award in 2005, said that apart from low wages and rampant exploitation, migrant workers were also subjected to unfair labour practices and often stopped and harassed by uniformed personnel, in a country that has no legal framework to protect, regulate or ensure the safety of immigrants.
Immigrants’ housing, wages and welfare were left to market forces, she told the English-language ‘Jakarta Post’, causing a chaotic situation that enabled rampant exploitation of vulnerable workers.
The interview came on the heels of rising anger in Indonesia against the reports of exploitation of its nationals in Malaysia.
The wave of immigration, which began in Malaysia in the 1990s, coincided with a construction and commodities boom that saw vast swathes of the jungle-cloaked country transformed into oil palm plantations.
As countless skyscrapers popped up and rapid urbanisation made the construction sector hungry for cheap labour, Indonesians were lured into the country en masse, quickly growing to be the biggest group of foreign workers, numbering nearly two million last year.
Others – Indians, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Vietnamese and Africans – followed to work on plantations and in the construction, manufacturing and service sectors whose rapid expansion left the top 10 percent of Malaysia’s 28 million people, along with foreign investors, extremely wealthy.
The middle class also expanded but the bottom 60 percent of the country suffered, competing ferociously for the manufacturing sector’s four million jobs.According to the Malaysian Investment and Development Authority (MIDA), a government agency, from 2011 the government expanded foreign employment to include 11 sub-sectors such as restaurant jobs, cleaning services, cargo handling, launderette services, golf club caddies, barbers and so forth.
As high demand pushed wages down, the ‘3-D’ jobs – dirty, dangerous and demeaning employment that most Malaysians no longer want to do – became almost exclusively associated with Indonesian immigrants.
To counter Fernandez’s allegations now circling around Jakarta, the mainstream media here is running daily stories of happily employed Indonesian workers with no complaints about the system.
The interview is seen as a “betrayal of Malaysia” by Fernandez and has sparked vociferous calls for action against her.
She has been accused of everything from unpatriotic behaviour to being a traitor and has been held responsible for spoiling an otherwise “excellent” relationship between the two countries.
Under pressure from the government, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the police announced this week that Fernandez is being investigated for ‘sedition’, a catch-all law that many civil rights activists have described as “archaic” and used against human rights defenders.
Fernandez, who for the last two decades has been virtually the lone voice in the country decrying the plight of foreign workers, said she is unfazed by the attacks.
“I will not be cowed. I will continue to speak up for voiceless migrants and the oppressed poor people of Malaysia,” she told IPS.
“I have no regrets. I want to highlight the sorry plight of thousands of migrant workers,” she said, adding that she stands by everything she said in the ‘Jakarta Post’ interview.
This is Fernandez’s second run-in with the law.
Back in 1996 she was charged with publishing false news to all the foreign missions in the capital about the deplorable living and working conditions of immigrants in detention centres.
After a marathon trial that lasted 13 years the court acquitted her.
She was given the Right Livelihood Award for her “outstanding and courageous work to stop violence against women and abuses of migrant and poor workers.”
Fernandez has a long history of activism – she organised the first textile workers union, was instrumental in setting up trade unions in the country’s free trade zones and focused on development of women leaders in the labour movement.
Tenaganita aims to secure the rights of foreign workers who, according to a government census in December 2011, number nearly 3 million, documented and undocumented.
The hysterical reaction against Fernandez for speaking the truth is typical of the government, said Arulchelvam Subramaniam, the secretary-general of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM).
“The country has a first world infrastructure and a booming economy but remains immature intellectually,” he explained.
“At a signal, everybody jumped on the bandwagon and lashed out at her (Fernandez) including the mainstream media”, in the process forgetting the real issues involved such as the exploitation of workers, low wages and corruption in the legal system.
According to Subramaniam Sathasivam, the Human Resources minister, all labour laws are equally applicable to locals as well as foreign workers.
“We are fair in that,” he told IPS.
But the laws are weak and easily surmounted by employers, while law enforcement and persecution of offenders is weak and ineffective. Some laws look good on paper but are impractical to implement.
While seeking to deflect criticism on its handling of foreign workers, the government is now toying with a Foreign Workers Act, which will regulate immigrants’ working and living conditions.