Migrant workers deserve full protection

ELEVEN migrant workers' and one Malaysian supervisor died at a building site in Penang.

While Malaysians clamoured for those responsible for allowing such a project near a fragile hill to be accountable as they rightly should, there has been no reporting of the plight of the migrant workers and the dignified burial they should have been entitled to, in the Malaysian media.

>> What sort of compensation have they been promised?

>> Has the developer or the Penang state government come forward with some magnanimous gesture as they sometimes do when Malaysians meet such a fate?

>> Or have we moved on, as if migrants' lives don't matter?

Malaysians sometimes forget that our ancestors were migrants in this country once. This country has been built by migrants of all nationalities.

Today, migrant workers comprise a vital part of our workforce especially since they are prepared to do the dangerous, dirty and difficult jobs that Malaysians shy away from.

The gleaming glass skyscrapers of which our country is so proud have been built through the blood, sweat, tears, and lives of young migrant men and women desperate to support their families.

Over the years, Suaram has been documenting and monitoring the situation facing refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers in Malaysia.

They face "a depressing and repetitive catalogue of arbitrariness, abuses and denigration as well as xenophobia and racism".

Malaysia's record on eliminating forced labour, abolishing child labour, prohibiting discrimination in employment, safeguarding freedom of association, and the right to collective bargaining for migrant workers has come under scrutiny in Suaram's's monitoring.

"We have been appalled by the way that agents, labour outsourcing companies, employers, human traffickers and modern-day slavers have been operating at the expense of (migrant) workers' rights, with little monitoring or enforcement or apparent concern by the authorities. Instead it has been the migrant workers themselves who have more often than not been the ones criminalised in this scenario."

It is high time Malaysia had a comprehensive policy on labour migration instead of the decades long ad hoc policy. Such a policy must honour the human rights of migrant workers and ensure they receive due dignity as human beings. Expatriates living near the scene of the disastrous landslide in Penang commented on the appalling housing conditions of the migrant workers at the building site – overcrowded, unhygienic, poorly maintained, substandard, and with few facilities.

There is negligible monitoring of housing conditions for migrant workers by either federal or local authorities, despite the fact that there have been standards laid down in the Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act.

A report by MTUC/GEFONT has documented abuses faced by Nepali workers. These included being forced to work 16-hour days; no rest days; non-payment or partial payment of wages; women being sexually assaulted; injuries being commonplace; deaths at work being far too common.

Another Finnwatch report found migrant workers in oil palm plantations having to pay enormous recruitment fees; often misled about what to expect; during recruitment, and many workers are still not paid the minimum wage.

For the millions of undocumented migrant workers who have no status and little protection, they are particularly vulnerable to the activities of human traffickers and modern day slavers.

Migrant workers on agricultural and palm oil plantations, at building sites, in the electronic industry, and in domestic work may be subjected to labour practices indicative of forced labour, such as restrictions on movement, withholding of wages, contract substitution, confiscation of passports and debt bondage.

Their vulnerability to modern day slavery and human trafficking is augmented by their vulnerability to harassment, extortion, arrest and detention by the authorities.

Thousands are in detention centres, the conditions of which have for long been the subject of immense concern. This vulnerability is one that they share with refugees and especially asylum seekers.

Many employers, agents and outsourcing companies are either ignorant of, or ignore, obligatory responsibilities with regard to health and safety and do not provide adequate insurance for their workforce, or compliance to the various legislation including the Workmen's Compensation Act.

It remains to be seen what compensation the families of these eleven hapless victims of the landslide in Penang will receive.

Suaram has called for:

>> Ratifying the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families;

>> Reviewing the current management of recruitment of foreign labour via unscrupulous employment agencies which favour human trafficking and modern-day slavery and for recruitment of migrant workers to be conducted in a regulated manner and ensuring their labour rights and obligations;

>> Amending the Employment Act to provide greater protection for migrant workers, including domestic workers, in accordance with international legal standards; allowing the right to employment for refugees, and extending the enforcement of the minimum wage to all workers;

>> Extending the coverage of the Employees' Social Security Act 1969 to include migrant workers, reviewing the situation relating to healthcare costs for migrant workers and ensuring adequate compensation for those killed or injured;

>> Enforcing proper housing guidelines to ensure that migrant workers have adequately sized, clean, hygienic and secure accommodation;

>> Developing a legislative framework for the protection of all migrant children, particularly unaccompanied children, in line with international standards relating to the right to education and to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right to healthcare services.

Kua Kia Soong
Suaram Adviser