Wednesday, April 26, 2017
The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Minister to seek migrant labour deal in Malaysia

A Ministry of Labour delegation will travel to Malaysia this week to propose a program to register undocumented migrant workers in Myanmar, a week after hundreds were detained in a nationwide crackdown launched by the Malaysian government.

Detained migrants, their hands bound, sit on the ground following a raid by immigration officials near Kuala Lumpur shortly after midnight on September 1. Photo: AFPDetained migrants, their hands bound, sit on the ground following a raid by immigration officials near Kuala Lumpur shortly after midnight on September 1. Photo: AFP

The delegation, scheduled to depart on September 9, will be led by Minister for Labour, Employment and Social Security U Aye Myint.

Department of Labour director U Myo Aung, who will also travel to Malaysia with the delegation, said the government hoped to reach an agreement with Malaysia on registering undocumented migrant workers.

“We [have] realised that solving problems each time they occur does not work. We need some policies to protect our workers there so we want to focus on negotiating an agreement,” he told The Myanmar Times on September 7.

He hinted that a temporary ban on sending migrant workers to Malaysia through legal channels that the government announced in June could be lifted after this week’s visit. “After we check the conditions in Malaysia, we’ll [allow] workers to go there if everything is fine for them,” he said.

Malaysia’s home affairs minister was quoted as saying last week that more than 2400 undocumented migrants have been arrested in 40 raids since the operation began on September 1.

More than 550 of those detained are Myanmar nationals but the Malaysian embassy in Yangon said last week it expects that number to climb as the sweeps continue.

The three-month operation is aimed at rooting out and deporting some 500,000 illegal workers – mostly from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesia – who live in Malaysia and survive on low-paying jobs.

U Myo Aung said he did not think the government could do anything to help detained illegal workers because of the Malaysian government’s policy.

“From their side, the Malaysian government did their job and the workers are illegal so yes, they have the right to arrest them. They arrest every illegal worker – not only those from Myanmar but also from Indonesia, Vietnam, India and other countries,” he said.

Pranom Somwong, a representative of the Worker Hub for Change and Network of Action for Migrants in Malaysia, said the sweeps are mostly focusing on Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Penang and Johor, which have been identified as “hubs” for undocumented workers.

Suspected illegal foreign workers sit on the ground during an immigration raid operation shortly after midnight on September 1 outside Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFPSuspected illegal foreign workers sit on the ground during an immigration raid operation shortly after midnight on September 1 outside Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

The Malaysian embassy estimates that there are 100,000 illegal Myanmar workers in Malaysia. There are another 300,000 documented workers, while about 3000 Myanmar nationals apply each month for Malaysian work visas.

The visit will be the second that Myanmar officials have made to Malaysia in recent months because of concerns over the safety of migrant workers.

Many workers are lured to Malaysia by brokers and employers with the promise of relatively high-paying jobs but after arrival find themselves working in poor conditions for low wages with their passports being held by their employers.

“Workers find themselves caught between potentially unscrupulous employment agencies and the risk of being arrested by immigration authorities,” said Ms Pranom.

Charles Hector, a lawyer and human rights activist in Malaysia who has worked extensively with Myanmar workers, described the crackdown as misguided because it targets workers instead of the employers and broker agencies that force them out of legal jobs.

He said many workers arrive in Malaysia legally but quit their jobs and lose their status as documented workers when they find conditions and pay far below what they expected.

He said another problem stems from workers being offered long-term contracts only to have them quickly terminated by employers looking to save money or operate off the books.

“The question is: How did they become undocumented?” said Mr Hector.

The Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur could not be reached for comment last week, with repeated phone calls going unanswered.