18 Dec 2017
A NATION BUILT WITH BROKEN BONES
International Migrants Day, celebrated on December 18, 2017, ,serves to remind us of the vital contribution of migrants to the socio-economic development of both source and host countries.
In view of the importance of the contributions of migrant workers, it is only natural that they have legitimate expectations of being treated with dignity and equity. However, despite the various laws in the country that purportedly uphold the rights of migrant workers, the sad reality is that they continue to suffer from a wide range of violations with little avenue for justice.
Within a period of 12 months, from January to December 2016 Tenaganita handled 481 new cases of rights violations consisting of 3793 complainants. This is in addition to 55 ongoing cases of rights violations involving 159 complainants, carried over from the previous year. While the main motivation for migration is economic, it is ironic that complaints regarding unpaid wages topped the list of complaints. Other complaints included withholding of passports by employers or agents, denial of medical care, cheating by recruitment/employment agents and abuse of powers by government agencies. The number of cases handled just by Tenaganita alone is illustrative of the extent of rights violations against migrant workers in Malaysia.
Migrant domestic workers, who are almost all females, are even more vulnerable to exploitation, given the isolated and confined work conditions.
Foreign exchange remittances by migrant workers contribute significantly to the economies of many source countries but migrants are often blamed for the outflow of foreign exchange. However what is often overlooked is the fact that the real value of the contribution of the migrant workers to the economies of the host countries far exceeds the quantum of remittances.
Migrant workers are also often subject to inferior workplace safety and health standards as compared to the rest of the country. Within such a context, migrant workers face substantial risks and vulnerabilities. This is particular evident in the construction industry as there is a clear absence of extensive safety regulations and enforcement of existing safety regulation in this sector. Workers are not provided with proper training prior to operating heavy machinery nor are they being given adequate safety gear, with some workers having resorted to obtaining cheap pairs of sunglasses from the night market to use to protect their eyes from sawdust. We have also seen many workers who, having not been briefed on health and safety regulations at the workplace, are not aware of where to go when accidents or ailments occur. The lack of awareness of the health risks at their workplace and the lack of safety measures means that many workers are often exposed to various high risk hazards, including physical harm, or even exposure to hazardous biological and chemical material, prolonged exposure of which causes these workers to become highly susceptible to chronic diseases, such as cancer and tuberculosis. Side-stepping such standards are a clear ploy to maximise corporate profits, however, are such profits worth attaining at the expense of workers’ lives?
In addition to that, many of these workers are also faced with the challenges of living as a migrant in Malaysia and are often susceptible to exploitation and abuse. For instance, there has been a recent increase in cases of unpaid wages and unfair dismissal. Wages of migrants and refugees are often withheld or denied due to the lack of labour regulation as well as ever-changing and vague government policies. Employers continue to take advantage of the gap in the system by gaining from the abuse and exploitation of workers. They are often faced with little to no accountability for their actions and inactions. Furthermore, the recent statements and enforcements by the government regarding the hiring of undocumented workers (including refugees) have also caused workers to be unfairly dismissed without payment of wages.
We would like to draw special attention to the situation of migrant workers in the construction sector. Landslides at building construction sites, collapse of buildings and other structures under construction, explosions, safety violations (euphemistically glossed over as industrial accidents) that have been widely reported in the media, do not need repetition. The frequency of such incidents suggests that there is widespread disregard for proper safety measures, training and enforcement of safety regulations. The fast pace of construction of housing and infrastructure such as roads, MRT lines and bridges in the country is paid for with mutilated bodies and lost lives of migrant workers
Another prominent news story that revealed the deplorable working conditions in the construction industry was the expose published by R.AG.E ( The STAR Publication) journalists which has shed light on the unsafe and unsanitary living conditions of many workers in the construction industry who live in makeshift dorms also known as kongsi. Migrant workers in the construction sector often endure unsafe and unsanitary living conditions in makeshift dorms referred to as “kongsi” (communes of workers). These ghettos often consist of makeshift toilets and rooms that are made of plywood and zinc and seem to operate outside national and local authority legislation and regulations covering health, sanitation, housing, safety and the like. The lack of awareness of or disregard for the health risks at their workplace and at the “kongsi” make the migrant workers vulnerable to contagious diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis, injury, and death.
Construction sites are also notorious for exploitation of migrant workers and refugees who seek work to earn a decent living wage. Tenaganita has been receiving an increasing number of complaints of non payment of wages by contractors. The system of subcontracting work which is widely practised in the construction industry makes it particularly conducive for migrant workers to be systematically cheated of their hard earned wages, while allowing the main contractors to disclaim all responsibility for the injustices that are perpetrated. The subcontracting system is also used by the main contractor to attempt to evade responsibility for injuries and even deaths that occur at the construction site. The Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) whose mission is to “To regulate, develop and facilitate the construction industry by inculcating professionalism in delivering quality, productive and sustainable built environment”, cannot afford to ignore the rampant violations perpetrated against migrant workers, because respect for human rights is a core element of sustainability.
The number of migrant workers in the country includes many who have been forced into the labour market as a result of being cheated by agents and bogus educational institutions when applying for student visas. The large number of such cases suggests the connivance of government agencies in the student visa scams. Being undocumented, they are faced with the additional risk of deportation yet there is no legal recourse taken against those agents and employers who cheat and steal from vulnerable people. However, migrant workers are increasingly being subject to crackdowns which have led to a high rate of arrest and detention of migrants. Even migrant workers who have participated in the rehiring process program by the government are being arrested despite having and showing the proof and documentation of their legal status. Thus we are witnessing a situation where migrants are being penalised by the government despite undergoing a process that is set up by the government.
International Migrants Day is an occasion for us to remind ourselves that migrant workers are a valuable and integral part of our society, not faceless dehumanised commodities to be used as factors of production. When violation of their rights occurs, there should be practical and effective avenues for them to seek redress.
As such, on this International Migrant Day 2017, Tenaganita and CARAM Asia would thus like to reiterate its call to ASEAN governments, and other source country governments that:
- Governments must consider migrant’s enormous contributions in the development of the country and ensure that basic human rights are respected for all people at all times;
- To urgently take steps to ratify ILO Convention 143 concerning Migrations in Abusive Condition and the Promotion of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers and the ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers;
- A systematic plan to address the structural flaws in our migration system, including enacting a comprehensive rights-based policy for the recruitment, placement and employment of migrants and refugees in Malaysia
- That the system of administration of justice must be sensitive to the needs of the victims and their families, and metes out the appropriate punishment on those who exploit work
- To enact a separate legislation to protect domestic workers together with a standard and binding contract
- That labour trafficking and slavery is stopped immediately by host countries and the racketeers are brought to justice;
- That host countries take responsibility of migrant workers redress and develop a migrant friendly mechanisms and bring to justice their employers.
For years, Tenaganita together with other organizations have been calling on Malaysia to build and enforce a comprehensive policy regarding migration in Malaysia. After decades of employing migrant workers Malaysia still does not have clear and proven systems in place to address pre-departure, post-arrival, and repatriation. Whatever systems that we have in place are ridden with weak enforcement and corruption. We must work with migrant countries of origin that have not taken a serious view on how nationals are being treated in Malaysia. We must stop simply having diplomatic handshakes, but sit together seriously with other stakeholders to discuss critical issues that concern migrant workers. We must choose to do better by these migrant workers who contribute to our country.
The obligation of protecting migrant workers’ rights, therefore, rests equally upon both source and destination countries. Unfortunately, governments commonly treat migrant workers as commodities. Meanwhile, we as a society also need to stand up against the mistreatment of our fellow human beings. As a society, we can no longer stay silent while we enjoy the fruits of oppressed labour. We as a society can no longer live in a nation built on broken bones.
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