Migrant workers on the chopping block

As recession looms large on the horizon, migrant workers like 27-year-old Kumar Palanisamy from Chennai in India are the first on the chopping block. “My employer told me I have a job up to December...after that nobody knows,” said Kumar who works as a production operator with a furniture manufacturer exporting to the United States and China. “I don’t want to lose my job or get deported,” he said, eyes brimming with tears. “I have a family to support and Rs 40,000 (800 US dollars) debt to settle.” It is a time of great unease for Malaysia’s estimated 3.5 million legal and illegal, low-paid foreign workers who face a dreadful future in an unfriendly country as a global financial meltdown begins to take effect.

It does not help that neighbouring Singapore, already in recession, is expected to retrench workers and some 300,000 Malaysians working there have suddenly become vulnerable. The government has already formed a special task force that will find ways to accommodate retrenched Malaysians returning not only from Singapore but also Taiwan, Japan and the Middle East. “The foreign workers are at the lowest rungs of the scale and vulnerable. It is now a question of how soon recession will hit the country,” labour leader Siva Nathan said. “When that happens, the migrant workers will be the first to go,” he said.

Already there are signs of an official toughening of the attitudes against migrant workers, 2.2 million of whom are documented while the rest are considered “illegal immigrants. “Malaysia’s notorious ‘RELA’, an untrained and voluntary uniformed body, is already stepping up raids across the country to arrest undocumented workers and deport them.Immigration authorities have issued warnings that Malaysians found harbouring or renting premises to “illegal immigrants” would be fined or jailed. “They would be homeless and out in the open, and easily rounded up,” said a senior RELA officer on condition of anonymity. “We are sympathetic, but we have received our orders and the rule now is jobs are first for locals. We have to protect ourselves now as mass layoffs are possible with the world economy taking such a big hit.” Malaysia’s deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak is already gearing the government to tighten belts and save as many jobs as possible for the locals.

Annually migrant workers — mostly in the plantations, manufacturing, construction and service sectors — remit home an estimated RM18 billion (five billion US dollars) to their families across Asia, keeping them in relative comfort. The majority of the migrant workers are from neighbouring Indonesia while the rest come from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal and most recently from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. They are driven to migrate by poverty in their home countries.

Labour experts and rights activists say it is important for the authorities to plan how to handle the crisis in an intelligent and humanitarian manner to ensure that foreign workers are not just bundled into ships and deported. “Without the foreign labour we would not have been able to develop so rapidly,” said Fernandez. “We cannot just use and discard them as we like.” “There is an urgent need to develop a comprehensive policy that is respectful and humanitarian with payment of adequate retrenchment and other benefits,” she added. — IPS