The Multinational Monitor



A Call for Justice for
Malaysian Migrant Workers
An interview with Irene Fernandez

Irene Fernandez is director of Tenaganita (Women Force), a Malaysian non-governmental organization which advocates on behalf of women workers. She is also director of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law & Development, and director of Pesticide Action Network Asia-Pacific. In March 1996, the Malaysian government charged Fernandez with "maliciously publishing false news" in connection with a report she prepared that criticized conditions of government-operated detention centers for foreign migrant workers in Malaysia.

Multinational Monitor:Why is the Malaysian government prosecuting you?

Irene Fernandez: The organization with which I work was researching women migrant workers. We did extensive interviews with migrant workers who wanted to share their experiences with us. The experiences were really bad. They spoke of how they were denied food, how they were tortured, how corruption was rife.

We published a manuscript describing the treatment of migrant workers in the detention camps, and held a press conference releasing our findings. This became a very public issue of national concern, and the international media picked it up.

In September 1995, the head of the detention centers had a police report alleging criminal defamation filed against me. The police used that report to investigate me. They called me into questioning, though I claim it was more interrogation than questioning. Most of the questions were about my background, my networks, who is funding our organization and who determines policy and whether they are people from outside the country.

In March of this year, the police arrested me at home, this time under the Printing Presses and Publications Act. The charge was that I maliciously published false statements in the memorandum.

I came out on bail of 3,000 ringits. The trial is now ongoing.

MM: How extensive is the use of migrant labor in Malaysia?

Fernandez: There are an increasing number of migrant workers coming into the country. They are still mostly unskilled overseas contract workers that work on the plantations, in the construction sector or as domestic help. But they are currently in almost every sector, including services as well as manufacturing. Even the multinationals in the manufacturing sector are now using migrant labor. Though the government figures say there about 2 million migrant workers, our estimates are that there are about 3 million.

MM: Where do the migrants come from?

Fernandez: They come mainly from six countries in Asia: Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma and Pakistan. The government has agreed labor can be recruited from these countries, except Burma. We also have a lot of people coming from India and Sri Lanka. Workers from Burma, India, Sri Lanka and other nations enter the country as undocumented workers.

MM: Why are they coming into Malaysia?

Fernandez: Malaysia is currently experiencing a high economic growth rate. So there is a demand for labor in the country.

With the whole maldevelopment arising from economic globalization, you have uneven development in the region. Workers in Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia see that they can earn much more money in Malaysia, so they plan to come work for a while in Malaysia and then go back home. Many of them have sold whatever property they have, or mortgaged their land, to come.

Recruiters tell the migrant workers that they can earn $300 a month in Malaysia -- that is more than a professional can make in Bangladesh.

MM: What are the most serious problems faced by migrant workers in Malaysia?

Fernandez: I find the migrant workers are the most unprotected labor group in the country. That is quite worrying. On the one hand, they are totally unorganized, not even into an association. On the other hand, the role of the bigger companies is hidden away through subcontracting.

Most of these workers come in documented, but they can become undocumented very easily. For example, if they move from one employer to another, they become undocumented. If the recruiting agency says the recruiter will not take the migrant worker, and they are pushed to other sectors, they become undocumented. If the worker finishes his work in six months, and the worker has a one-year work permit, then he is pushed somewhere else and becomes undocumented. So the subcontracting system really is a problem for the migrant worker.

Another problem is that employers hold their passports. When the migrant workers are confronted by the enforcement agencies, the police or the immigration agencies, they are unable to produce the passports. They are detained and thrown into the detention center.

Also, without their passports, they cannot open a bank account. They hold their money, and the police or gangs or young fellows will come by and rob them. So there are numerous problems. They are really insecure.

Migrant workers also face difficulties receiving the wages they were promised. Often, the recruiting agency promises them $300 a month, for example, but the minute they come to Malaysia a new contract is substituted, for $100 in wages. They are then pushed to work very long hours.

Often, the employers do not even pay the wages owed the migrant workers. Or, sometimes, the employers pay the wages to the agent, who may take as much as 40 percent of the wages. In one case involving a Japanese chemical company, we wrote to Japan, and the Japan Human Rights Commission took it up with the parent company; and the parent company ordered them to pay the wages directly.

In terms of labor rights, the employers are supposed to follow the Employment Act. But many employer contracts with migrant workers state, for example, that the workers cannot join any union or employee organization. In the courts, the contract overrides the Employment Act.

The migrant workers also do not have sufficient protections from the occupational hazards they face. They do not come under social security. If they want to make a claim under workmen's compensation, they have to get a lawyer to file the case, and most of them do not have the capacity to do that.

Those who come to us, we support. But even then, the regulations under workmen's compensation have been changed so the maximum they can obtain is 1,000 ringits, and that is very low. We are doing test cases now to see whether they can just file a case in court, a civil suit. We filed a civil suit for three Indonesian workers who became paralyzed. One received 80,000 ringits, which is much better than he could have done with a workmen's compensation case. With the proper support mechanisms, the migrants may make out alright; but, on their own, it is almost impossible for workers to make a claim.

It is worst for women. If a migrant becomes pregnant, she is immediately deported. That is really very discriminatory. Women migrant workers, especially domestic help, are often raped, and that is very difficult to prove.

MM: In your report, what were you suggesting be done differently?

Fernandez: What I had said was that the government should have government-to-government agreements on the recruitment of migrant labor. The recruitment agencies should be registered and controlled. Migrants should hold their own documents; employers should not keep them. A comprehensive policy should be developed -- because there is no comprehensive immigration policy in the country -- in order to stop arbitrary and unfair decisions about who gets work visas.

MM: How have Malaysian unions responded to the surge in migrant labor?

Fernandez: We are advocating that the unions take a greater concern for migrant labor. Earlier, the unions did not; they felt that the role of migrants was to suppress labor organizing among nationals, and the unions therefore saw the migrants as a group that threatened workers. Our position is that the unions should have tried to maintain their right to organize migrant labor.

Since the memorandum, and the issue of migrant workers becoming a matter of national concern, I think the unions are taking a different position. The hotel and restaurant workers union is now organizing migrant workers. The construction union is as well -- they basically have no choice, because 80 percent of the labor force in the construction sector is migrant workers.

MM: Which multinationals are big users of migrant labor?

Fernandez: Many multinational companies are relying on subcontracting. Nestle's and Bata are two companies that rely heavily on subcontracted migrant workers. But there is very little accountability on the part of the multinationals in relation to their migrant workers.

Other multinationals using migrant workers include: Matsushita; the U.S. electronics companies Harris and Seagate; and also a number of the textile and garment companies, mainly companies from Taiwan.

Harris and Matsushita recruit from Indonesia and Bangladesh. They they are also opening factories nearby in Indonesia, so the Malaysian factories are training grounds.

MM: Do you see the reforms you called for as solving the problem of migrant labor, or do you think a more comprehensive restructuring of the regional economy -- one which would assure more job opportunities in migrants' home countries -- as ultimately necessary?

Fernandez: Given the choice, I would like all of them to go back. Their lives would be better.

The current situation is a result of global maldevelopment and part of the whole deregulation process that is happening in the region. With trade liberalization, I expect it to grow worse. Inequalities are going to sharpen between countries, and labor is going to chase capital. That is the phenomena I see happening in the Asian region.

This whole strategy of multinationals seems to be to make workers more vulnerable and unprotected -- subcontracting and migrant labor fits into that strategy.

In Malaysia, there are already cases of locals being rejected for jobs and migrants being taken in, of locals who have unionized being threatened that they will lose their jobs.

The question is how do you make these multinationals more accountable, because the violators are becoming more invisible within the whole subcontracting system. I think there needs to be a lot of discussion about how to make multinationals more responsible to workers -- we are still searching for answers.

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