ASEAN Beat | Economy | Society | Southeast Asia

Can Malaysia Solve Its Big Migrant Worker Challenge?

While the government has cited labor as being an area of priority for reform, it faces an uphill task.

Luke Hunt
Can Malaysia Solve Its Big Migrant Worker Challenge?

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad smiles during press conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia on Wednesday, May 16, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Since Mahathir Mohammad was returned to power last year in a shock election, Malaysia has initiated some reforms that have been welcomed relative to previous years. That includes amendments to laws governing capital punishment as well as more transparency in areas such as defense, which had been a source of corruption previously.

One of the areas of reform to watch is with respect to labor and the treatment of migrant workers. Overseas workers, numbering around 6 or 7 million from countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh and making up nearly half of Malaysia’s labor force by one count, have often been prone to human trafficking and other forms or abuse. This has at times affected the country’s foreign relations too: Indonesia and Cambodia, also key sources of migrant workers to Malaysia, have previously banned maids from going to Malaysia after cases of abuse.

The challenge is a big one for Malaysia. Of the 6 million estimated migrant workers, about half are characterized as illegal, with many working as indentured labor on construction sites, as domestic helpers, and on palm oil plantations. The overwhelming majority of foreign workers toil for paltry pay, long hours and often amid poor conditions. Domestics live in-house and work seven days a week and all have only limited, if any, legal access for wrongful dismissal. According to the Global Slavery Index, about 212,000 are “trapped in slavery” and that underpins Malaysia’s low ranking on the U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons list.

Dave Welsh, the country director for labor rights group Solidarity Center, said that historically, migrant workers in Malaysia were initially operating outside “the purview of what were very bad labor laws” which were harshly enforced, unlike other countries, which conform with guidelines laid down by the International Labor Organization (ILO) but see those regulations rarely enforced. Malaysia’s laws, he added, were “very transparent and completely, deliberately almost proudly out of whack with any international labor law norms, and applied vigorously.”

But over the past few years, there have been efforts to reform Malaysia’s approach to migrant workers amid growing international scrutiny on the country’s record on issues ranging from human trafficking to the treatment of maids. Of particular note was the discovery of mass graves and suspected human trafficking camps on the border with Thailand that emerged in 2015, back when Malaysia was part of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that had contained language on aspects of rights as well.

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Since coming to power, Mahathir has touted labor reform as being an area of priority for his government, with aspects including enhancing the management of migrant workers and improved labor market conditions with a view to eventually decreasing the country’s overdependence on foreign labor.

Progress on this front is still unclear given that it is still early days in the Pakatan Harapan government. But some industrial relations laws are being rewritten with respect to areas such as collective bargaining and union management in consultation with the Malaysian Trade Union Congress and the ILO. And the hope is that some progress may be seen next year.

While the jury is still out on how the government will fare on this front, the bigger picture for rights advocates is that Malaysia’s path toward reexamining some of its labor practices and reforming aspects of its behavior goes very much against the regional trend. “Certainly within the region there is nothing comparable going. In Malaysia this is very much against the current of what’s going on at the moment; the fact that change is afoot is very hopeful,” Welsh noted.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt