Illegal foreign labour plan another exercise in futility

Josh Hong

An amnesty programme offers undocumented foreign workers the chance to go home via legal channels for a token fine of RM300-500. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, November 30, 2020.

EARLIER this month, Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin announced that employers in the construction, manufacturing, plantation and agriculture sectors would be allowed to hire undocumented migrant workers under the Labour Recalibration Plan, whereas the Repatriation Recalibration Plan would make it possible for migrants to, subject to certain conditions, voluntarily return to their homeland, with effect from November 16 to June 30.

The two plans are implemented by the Immigration and Labour Departments and other government agencies with no third parties or middlemen involved.

The announcement immediately prompted my concern as to whether the process would entail a certain amount of expenses. After all, the Immigration Department’s record in dealing with this matter indicates clearly that when money is involved, corruption and bribery are inevitable.

Despite the home minister’s assurance that third parties or middlemen would not be needed in the latest plans, experience in the past two decades has shown that whenever the demand is good, companies or individuals with close ties to the Immigration Department will miraculously appear to offer to “fast-track” the applications through a “special channel”.

Indonesian migrant workers call this “dalam kantor ada lagi kantor”, meaning the job is made easier thanks to connections.

To better understand the current plans, I studied the so-called Recalibration and Repatriation Programme Flow Chart and found that depending on the circumstances, undocumented migrants who wish to go home are required to pay a fine of RM300-500, along with Covid-19 screening costs and airfares or ferry fares.

The total would thus be rather hefty for migrant workers earning a meagre salary, not to mention those who have either been temporarily suspended or retrenched by employers due to the pandemic. To encourage more undocumented migrants to avail themselves of the amnesty, the government should waive the penalty instead of creating more hurdles for them.

That’s not all. Employers must pay RM1,500 for each undocumented worker they hope to hire legally. Imagine the amount of money small and medium enterprises will have to fork out to legalise dozens of undocumented workers, which could exacerbate their already dire financial situation as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

In view of the punitively high costs, it’s conceivable that a large number of employers and employees may not be keen to come forward, and the amnesty would likely be attractive only to large companies with ample funds.

Given the reality that migrant workers serve as the backbone of small and medium industries, the issue of undocumented migrants will not be effectively resolved without their participation in the present plans, which risk ending up like the previous Back For Good amnesty programme, which saw only about 110,000 of the estimated two to four million undocumented migrants in Malaysia sign up to go home.

While the stipulation that all transactions must be done via credit/debit card or e-wallet would significantly  reduce the incidence of bribery, it doesn’t however ensure the elimination of third parties or middlemen who may be lurking in the background waiting to lure employers or migrants to through a “special channel”.

In fact, no matter which coalition is in power, Malaysia will not be able to put the labour migration policy on the right track so long as it fails to weed out corruption within the government, the Home Ministry especially.

Although the Pakatan Harapan government did conduct an unprecedented investigation into the hiring and management procedures of migrant workers, it turned out to be a damp squib as the Committee’s detailed report was eventually not made public, much to the dismay of those who were eagerly anticipating a real change under the “reformist” government.

A recent report produced by the Public Accounts Committee reveals middlemen were involved in the approvals of migrant workers’ permits, and that 22,901 migrant worker permits were approved for frozen sectors in the 2016-2018 period, with 6,784 companies receiving special approvals without advertising their openings on the government’s Jobs Malaysia portal as requested by the Human Resources Ministry.

Furthermore, recent investigations and arrests relating to the entry and exit stamps scam at Malaysia’s borders expose the involvement of immigration personnel who had colluded with an international syndicate. 

All this suggests the recruitment process for migrant workers stink of corruption and exploitation, undocumented workers are predominantly the victims rather than the culprits of an opaque labour recruitment system, and more efforts should be made to identify and punish those who have profited from the shady and unscrupulous business.

The government should not have rolled out another half-baked amnesty programme without first conducting a thorough study on the causes for the massive number of undocumented foreign workers in Malaysia.

A transparent process to legalise or repatriate the workers must also include a public consultation on the labour recruitment and management practices, with participation of lawmakers from both sides of the political divide, employers, unions, the Bar Council, the Human Rights Commission, industrial representatives, migrant workers’ groups, United Nations agencies and foreign missions, particularly those of the labour-sending countries, so as to ensure breadth and depth of discussion.

Once a mechanism to resolve the migrant worker conundrum is established, all of these parties should be given a role in monitoring its implementation. Only then can we achieve a more tangible and substantive outcome. – November 30, 2020.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

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