The Deplorable Situation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia

Parti Sosialis Malaysia is somewhat bemused with the jubilation in Madani Government circles following the recent upgrade of Malaysia from Tier 2 Watch List on Trafficking in Persons assessment to Tier 2 by the US Department of State. Listen guys, we have to be consistent. Malaysia strongly disagrees with the US stance on the horrendous genocide in Gaza; we have maintained a non-aligned stance on the conflict in Ukraine and we urge restraint and negotiations in the handling of Taiwan. In other words, we have serious differences of opinion with the ruling elite of the United States with regard to several major international issues. This implies that we do not quite trust their objectivity and/or honesty.

Yet, when the US says they are promoting us on the Trafficking in Persons list, we are ecstatic! Come on, do we not have our own moral compass – our sense of right and wrong? Do we need the US or any other Western power to give us “Brownie points”? Didn’t the colonial period end about 60 years ago? Where is our sense of self-worth?

Listen up Madani government – there are still many unsolved issues regarding the importation of migrant workers into Malaysia. And these need to be looked into seriously whether or not the US applauds us! Let me enumerate a couple of them –

1. The importation of migrant workers by private entities has led to situation where literally thousands of migrant workers are languishing in crowded accommodation without regular work or income. The private agencies bringing in these workers collect, illegally, up to RM 20,000 per worker. In the last 1 year, more than 400,000 Bangladeshi workers were imported in this manner. Do the maths – there are huge profits being made! Meanwhile the imported workers are distraught, as not only do they not have enough money to feed themselves, they are painfully aware of the pressures their families are facing in their home villages when the people who loaned them the funds to come to Malaysia ask for repayments. 

The march of 170 Bangladeshi workers to make a police report in Pengerang in December 2023 is just the tip of the iceberg. There are several thousand others in a similar predicament. This has yet to be addressed in a systematic manner. Many groups have suggested that import of foreign labour should be on a Government to Government basis without the intermediation of for-profit companies. For some reason the Madani government has been reluctant to implement this obvious solution.        

2. There is a very unequal power relationship between the migrant workers and their employers. The bosses usually hold the workers’ passports (though they are not supposed to). The bosses just have to identify the spokespersons of the migrant workers, cancel their work permits and get them deported. This will ensure that the remaining workers shut up and fall in line. Workers who reach the end of their tether, just abscond and look for jobs in the informal sector. But then they are unprotected. They cannot lodge a complaint against their boss as they are now “illegally” in the country. The presence of some 2 to 3 million “undocumented” workers (including many who became “undocumented” after entering Malaysia legally) reduces employment prospects for the Malaysia B20 and depresses the wage floor significantly.

Groups advocating for migrant rights have called for the granting of new work permits to migrant workers who have lost their jobs because of making a complaint to the labour department. If workers can exercise their right to redress, and an avenue to sustain themselves until their case is resolved, then the necessity of absconding and entering the non-formal sector is much reduced. This will greatly help both the migrant workers as well as our own B20 population.

A portion of the RM 2.5 billion levy collected annually from migrant workers could be set aside to pay the Yayasan Bantuan Guaman Kebangsaan to represent these migrant workers in the Labour Department and/or in Court. A team of translators, also paid for by levy collections, should be available such that foreign workers are able to access justice.    

Sadly, none of these recommendations have been acted upon. Yet, we are so jubilant that the US Department of State has patted us on the back! Isn’t this pathetic? 

Come on Madani Ministers, show us you have your own moral compass. Take immediate steps to address the ongoing exploitation and bullying of migrant workers under the current system. We have invited them to Malaysia to help us develop our economy. We must treat them as our guests and above all, as human beings, and not as a commodity to profit from! 

Jeyakumar Devaraj


Parti Sosialis Malaysia