Migrant workers are lured to Malaysia by promises of high salaries but often end up being exploited and abused, Amnesty International says in a report that urged the government to better protect foreign workers.
“Migrant workers come to Malaysia to escape poverty and to provide for their families. Once they arrive, however, many workers toil in conditions that amount to labor exploitation,” the London-based rights group said in a report released yesterday.
Malaysia depends heavily on foreign workers, who make up more than a fifth of the country’s work force and fill jobs at construction sites, factories, restaurants, households and palm oil plantations.
But lower-than-promised wages, unsafe working conditions and arbitrary arrests and extortion are common, Amnesty said.
An Amnesty team visited Malaysia in July last year and interviewed more than 200 workers — both legal and illegal — for the 100-page report titled Trapped — The Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia.
Malaysian Human Resource Minister S. Subramaniam denied foreign workers faced discrimination, saying they had the same rights as Malaysian workers. He said they could bring complaints of mistreatment to the Labor Department, which solved most cases speedily.
“The system of bringing in foreign workers is a well established legal system ... It is fair to everybody,” he told reporters. “We offer the same kind of protection to foreigners [as to locals] ... We don’t protect employers who exploit workers.”
In its report, Amnesty urged Malaysia to increase workplace inspections and step up prosecution of those who mistreat workers.
“This report documents the widespread nature of exploitation in Malaysia ... in every sector of employment,” Michael Bochenek, Amnesty’s director of policy, told reporters. “There is no ... effective redress for workers who want to bring individual complaints.”
The report called on the country to amend laws to guarantee better conditions and to stop employers or recruitment agents from holding workers’ passports, which restricts their ability to move about.
“The government of Malaysia has a responsibility to prevent ... abuses, which can include exploitation, forced labor, and trafficking in persons. Too often, the state fails to do so,” Amnesty said. “Much of Malaysia’s approach to migration is effectively to criminalize it, even though the country could not function without migrant labor.”
Amnesty said it found migrant workers are often deceived about their pay, the type of job and their legal status in the country.
Some workers are also held at their workplace by threat or violence, the report said. Three women from Myanmar, working as tailors, recounted how their employers called gangsters to intimidate and force them to work throughout the night.
About 2 million foreigners work in Malaysia legally, and an estimated 1 million more work illegally. Most come from poorer Indonesia. Others are from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam. They mostly fill jobs shunned by locals in this relatively wealthy Southeast Asian nation.
Amnesty said authorities indiscriminately stop those looking “poor and foreign” under the guise of checking their papers but often these are “moneymaking ventures, nothing more than opportunities for extortion.”
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