New Directions In The Migration Debate
There is an important contribution to the ongoing debate - if it can be dignified as such - over the position of migrant workers in Malaysia. It's from Aliran (which means "flow" in Bahasa), one of the most important social movements for justice, freedom and solidarity in the country. I want to quote in full from its recently issued statement on the exploitation of migrant workers and call for a radical rethink on migration policy. Its central message should resonate elsewhere.
Aliran is befuddled by the Malaysian government's policy on migrant workers. On the one hand, it wants to send back all undocumented migrant workers. On the other, it would like to open up even more sectors of the workforce to migrant workers.
Let us be clear that this opening up is not a sign of "liberalisation", indicating a more enlightened attitude towards migrant workers. Neither is it motivated by a desire to help poorer countries in the region by providing employment to their citizens.
Instead, this new policy appears to be motivated solely by a desire to serve Malaysian corporate and business interests. By opening up even more sectors to migrant workers, the government is allowing corporate and business interests to make even more profits on the back of cheap, easily exploited and vulnerable migrant labour. Many of these migrant workers are denied the basic rights due to them as workers. They even have to surrender their passports to their employers and are not encouraged to join trade unions. At the first sign of discontent among the migrant workers due to exploitative working conditions and lower-than-promised wages, they are quickly packed off home.
Apart from the exploited migrant workers, the ones who will be hurt the most are Malaysian workers, especially the Malaysian poor. This new policy will encourage more migrant workers - whether they are legal or undocumented migrant workers - and further depress the wages of semi-skilled and unskilled Malaysian workers. Many Malaysian factory operators, restaurant waiters, cleaners and garbage collectors will suffer. They could even be laid off as employers resort to contract labour - usually made up of lowly paid and exploitable migrant workers - to save costs.
A thorough revamp is needed in our policy towards migrant workers. There is nothing wrong in hiring migrant workers, but they must be paid the same wages as their Malaysian counterparts and should enjoy all the basic rights due to a worker - including the right to join trade unions and to engage in collective bargaining. Let us not be regarded as a nation that exploits cheap migrant labour at the expense of low-income Malaysian workers to fuel our economic growth.