Every human being should be treated equally and fairly.
No one should be denied their basic rights regardless of their status and this includes migrant workers.
Who is a migrant worker? A migrant worker is a person who either migrates within their home country or outside their country in order to pursue work and make an honest living to support themselves and their family.
Migrant workers usually do not have the intention to stay permanently in the country or region in which they come to work.
They are also called foreign workers. They can also be called expatriates or guest workers.
Whatever name we use to address migrant workers, it is very important for us to respect and safeguard the dignity and rights of migrant workers.
It is disheartening to hear stories of migrant workers being subjected to unfair treatment by their own employer and negative perceptions from the society.
Why should migrant workers be treated and seen in such a hostile way?
There should not be any reason for us to treat them differently from us. They are also human beings just like us.
They also have families they want to take care and support back home.
It is very important for us to question, why these workers are willing to travel far away from their home country in order to find jobs?
Nobody would spend much of their pocket money, time and energy as well as enduring many difficulties going abroad in order to find work unless they are desperate and do not have a choice.
Work is a central part of a person’s life that ensures sustenance for one’s self and also their dependants.
It is also an essential component for one’s sense of identity, self-worth and emotional well-being.
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR 1948) states that:
Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment;
Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work;
Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection; and
Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests. A person may engaged in employment in his homeland or abroad.
Often known as the land of milk and honey, Malaysia has attracted many migrant workers from various countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and others.
The migrant workers span the occupational spectrum from professionals on fixed-term contracts to labourers who work in 3D (dirty, dangerous and difficult) sectors.
Many of these migrant workers are predominantly employed as labourers in the country’s construction and plantation sectors, restaurants and as domestic workers.
Some of them receive low wages and were subjected to discrimination.
There were also reported cases involving cheating and fraud by their own agents and employers, of exploitations and abuses, denial of basic labour protection, and others.
It is very important for all workers in the country, including migrant workers, to be protected at all times.
Article 6(1) of the Federal Constitution clearly provides that “no person shall be held in slavery”.
The term “no person” explicitly used in the above article reflects that neither local nor migrant workers shall be held in slavery or any form of servitude.
Further Article 6(2) of the Federal Constitution provides that all forms of forced labour are prohibited.
Apart from the above, Article 8(1) of the Federal Constitution provides that “all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”.
Again, the words “all persons” in the above article can necessarily include migrant workers.
Hence, physically abusing migrant workers such as causing hurt and their wrongful confinement is totally abhorred and is thus, prohibited by the Federal Constitution, the highest law of the country.
It should therefore be recognised and accepted that all workers should be treated with full dignity without distinction whether they are locals or migrants.
Migrants workers should enjoy and be equally protected under our labour legislations like Employment Act 1955 (Act 265), Industrial Relations Act 1967 (Act 177), Occupational Safety and Health Act 1994 (Act 514), and others.
There is also an urgent need for Malaysia to relook how migrant workers are stationed in this country.
Recent exposés of unsympathetic and uncivilised treatment of migrant workers by a few factories in the country need serious attention and require immediate action by the government and all the enforcement agencies.
We are not sure about the life and fate of migrant workers in other factories and workplaces throughout the country which have not been exposed.
The recent exposés in these few factories might just be the tip of the iceberg.
A lot of these corporations might use cost-cutting measures to maximise profit at the expense of a person’s dignity, and foreigners are their primary targets as most of them are unaware of their rights or afraid to bring this up due for fear of being deported or losing their jobs.
Malaysia needs to ramp up its efforts in relooking at living conditions of these migrant workers as their horrific living conditions significantly contributed to the spread of many diseases, including Covid-19.
The first step moving forward is to teach all migrant workers who come and work in our country about their basic rights.
All of them need to be informed about the existence of various groups and associations in the country which they can have access to in order to seek immediate assistance.
Malaysia needs to inspect cautiously the background of all companies before approving their request to hire foreign labour.
This includes checking the company’s track records, their ability to provide proper facilities and accommodations for migrant workers, as well as their capability in ensuring their safety and health while working in their place.
At the same time, it is also important to educate Malaysians that every human life is equal to another.
Just because migrant workers do not speak the same language and share the same culture as us that does not mean they should be treated horribly.
Dr Muzaffar Syah Mallow is an associate professor in the Faculty of Syariah & Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and YB Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman is Muar Member of Parliament. Comment:firstname.lastname@example.org