With Malaysians reluctant to take up menial jobs, Malaysia is one of Asia's largest importers of foreign labour. Malaysia has some 4 million foreign workers, only half of whom are in the Southeast Asian country legally. As a relatively wealthy nation in the region, Malaysia attracts people from impoverished or war-torn places including Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar who seek stability, better economic opportunity or a way to enter other countries such as Australia. 2011

There were about 2.2 million legal guests workers in Malaysia in 2010. They make up more than 20 percent of the country's 10.5 million-strong workforce. They are largely employed in the plantation, manufacturing, construction and service sectors, particularly in the hotel and restaurant business. Foreign workers often accepted lower wages than Malaysians. The country has no minimum wage. Typically, foreigners are brought in by a business offering a job or by an outsourcing company that promises them work.

During the boom years in the 1980s and 90s, Malaysia suffered from labor shortagez. The country only had a work force of 8 million people. Many foreign companies complained there were not enough skilled workers. In 1997, there were an estimated 1.8 million foreign workers in Malaysia. Of these about 1.2 million were legal and about 800,000 were illegal. About three fourths of the foreign laborers were from Indonesia. Others were from the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Pakistan, and Burma.

Indonesians form 65 percent of the foreign workforce, followed by Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Indians and Vietnamese. Police estimate that an additional 700,000, mostly Indonesians, are employed in Malaysia without valid work documents.

Foreign workers work as rubber tree tappers, bricklayers, maids, itinerant barbers, and tea pickers. Many of the landmark buildings and infrastructure projects in Malaysia were built on the backs of foreign laborers, the majority of them from Indonesia, who earned about $13 a day in the 1990s, about four time what they could earn at home.

According to Reuters Malaysia suffers a chronic shortage of labour and relies heavily on cheap workers from Indonesia, just a ferry-boat ride away, to take up unskilled or semi-skilled work. As for Malaysians, the government’s successful drive to improve education and modernise the economy has meant fewer people have been willing to do the gruelling manual work upon which the country's prosperity has been built.

Discrimination Against Foreign Workers in Malaysia

Foreign workers are barred from marrying local women, opening bank accounts, changing jobs or traveling. "They are constantly stopped, questioned and arrested even when they have valid documents," said Fernandez. Pakistani -worker, Tajul Mohideen, told the Asia Times: "This country is very rich and there are lots of jobs, but there is a lot of discrimination too."

During the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98, Malaysia overnight went from having a labor shortage to threatening to expel 1 million foreign workers. During a 1998 "Operation Get Out" campaign, illegal workers were rounded up and placed in detention centers. Their heads were shaved and they were loaded on boats and sent back to Indonesia. They kept on coming by boat from Indonesia because the economic situation there was worse than Malaysia. There were worries about a boat people situation worse than one from Vietnam in the 1970s.

Undocumented and Illegal Workers in Malaysia

There are an estimated 700,000 to 2 million undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia. Many of the workers at construction sites and on palm oil, rubber and watermelon plantations in Borneo are undocumented Indonesians. Some live there with their families and children who were born in Malaysia and have never seen Indonesia. Illegal workers from Indonesia. They are the backbone of the construction industry but are also accused of committing petty crimes such as thefts. There also hundreds of thousand of illegal Filipino domestic workers.

Many of the illegal immigrants from Indonesia arrived in rickety wooden boats that travele the short distance between Sumatra and Malaysia across the Malacca Strait. In the 1990s the immigrants paid around $100 for the our-hour nighttime journey. The government is concerned these workers do not pay tax and put a heavy burden on the state, which runs a budget deficit. The volunteer Rela force — a neighbourhood watch organisation — says the illegals are also responsible for crime and other social ills.

Illegal Workers in Sabah

AFP reported: Foreign settlers in Sabah have been blamed for waves of crime and creating a generation of stateless children who live in appalling conditions in the towns and villages of Sabah state. The influx of mostly Muslim migrants has also tipped the ethnic balance against indigenous tribes who used to dominate the population, say politicians in Sabah, which is struggling to cope with the influx. Sabah's deputy chief minister Joseph Pairin recently described the problem as "threatening the peace and security in the state" and likened it to a time bomb which could explode if not defused.[Source: Agence France-Presse August 5, 2008]

Sandwiched by the Philippines in the north, and Indonesia's Kalimantan to the south, resource-rich Sabah has for decades been a magnet for immigrant workers who labor on construction sites and oil palm plantations. "This problem has a very long history and many observations have been made on illegal immigrants. The people here know this crisis goes back to the 70s," said Cabinet minister Bernard Dompok, who hails from the region.

Official data say a quarter of the state's three million inhabitants are "foreigners" but the number of illegals is not known. Pairin said it could be as high as 1.5 million while civil society groups estimate one million. In the markets and on the street corners of Sabah's capital, Kota Kinabalu, migrant children beg for money or try to sell plastic bags to earn a few coins. Some as young as nine years old can be seen sniffing glue — aid workers say it is a common pastime here — and at night, those who have no homes to go to shelter in cardboard boxes discarded at the market.

"The main problem is they do not have identification and without this, they cannot go to school, so many end up as child labor," said Aegil Fernandez from rights group Tenaganita. It conducted a survey that found there are nearly 80,000 stateless children in Sabah, the majority of them of Filipino descent. "Many of these children fend for themselves. They do not go to school and lay around in markets and restaurants, and some sleep in the market area," Fernandez said.

The migrant influx to Sabah dates back to the 1970s when tens of thousands of Muslim Filipinos fled conflict in the country's south and sought refuge here, claiming ties with the Muslim Bajau tribe. Many of those who stayed have been given permanent residency or citizenship in Malaysia — a fact deeply resented by Sabah's original inhabitants, many of whom are Christian.

One of the most notorious Filipino settlements is Gaya Island, where some 4,000 illegal settlers live in villages on its fringes. In one village, Kampung Pondo, young children frolic in the warm waters of the South China Sea using fish containers as rafts, calling out for money from a visitor. Below shacks made of plywood and scavenged construction material, women washed their clothes in the filthy sea water, some with babies strapped to their backs with sarongs. Outside the village, which reeked of garbage and raw sewage, antipathy towards the settlers is clear, even among Sabah's Muslim inhabitants.

"There are drug lords here who smuggle syabu [amphetamines] and sell it in the city using their children. Most of them are armed so the locals stay away from these waters," said Kanchi Abdullah, village head of Gaya Island's Bajau tribe. "They tap into our electricity and water supply. Their children are quick to learn the local language and mix — soon, it will be hard to tell them apart from a Sabahan," he said.

Forced Labor in Malaysia

Erika Kinetz, George Wehrfritz and Jonathan Kent wrote in Newsweek, “Some of the world's leading computer makers don't want you to know about Local Technic Industry. It's a typical Malaysian company, one of many small makers of the cast-aluminum bodies for hard-disk drives used in just about every name-brand machine on the market. But that's precisely the problem: it's a typical Malaysian company. About 60 percent of Local Technic's 160 employees are from outside Malaysia—and a company executive says he pities those guest workers. "They have been fooled hook, line and sinker," he says, asking not to be named because others in the business wouldn't like his talking to the press. "They have been taken for a ride." It's not Local Technic's fault, he insists: sleazy labor brokers outside the country tricked the workers into paying huge placement fees for jobs that yield a net income close to zero. "They say they were promised 3,000 ringgits [$950] a month," the manager says. "How can we pay that? If we did, we would be bankrupt in no time." [Source: Erika Kinetz, George Wehrfritz, Jonathan Kent, Newsweek, March 15, 2008]

“So why don't those foreign employees just quit? Because they can't, even if they find out they've been cheated by the very brokers who brought them there. Malaysian law requires guest workers to sign multiple-year contracts and surrender their passports to their employers. Those who run away but stay in Malaysia are automatically classed as illegal aliens, subject to arrest, imprisonment and caning before being expelled from the country. "Passport, company take," says a Bangladeshi who has worked at Local Technic. (Like other workers in this story, he fears possible reprisals if he is named.) "They say, 'You come to this company, must work for this company and cannot work other place.' They say, 'If you work [for] someone else, the police will catch you'." He paid a broker in Bangladesh $3,600 to get him a job at Local Technic. When he arrived, he says, he learned he was making $114 a month after deductions for room, board and taxes. The math is simple: minus the broker's fee, his net monthly pay is $14. If he never spends a penny on himself, three years of labor will earn him a grand total of $504.

“One of the most notorious host countries [for forced labor] is Malaysia, with an estimated 2.5 million foreign workers, including many who fit the U.N. definition of forced laborers. Malaysia's foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, has vehemently denied allegations that his country uses forced labor. "It's all false, not true," he said of a 2007 U.S. State Department report on the subject. "Malaysia is a country that does not encourage trafficking in persons." But Malaysian law effectively makes every foreign worker a captive of the company that hired him or her. In the name of immigration control, employers like Local Technic are required to confiscate guest workers' passports and report any runaways to the police. No one blames company managers for lies told by independent labor recruiters inside or outside the country. Yet new recruits keep coming.

“Professional spotters prowl Indonesia's neglected West Kalimantan province, collecting bounties as high as $100 for each mark they find for the brokers. Job touts then swoop down, offering gifts, cash and working papers. In Malaysia, just over the border, labor agencies pay the traffickers as much as $1,000 a head on delivery—and new recruits are then told they'll have to pay that money back with interest before they can go home. "The scale [of recruiting] here is unbelievable," says Elizabeth Dunlap, who oversees the IOM's counter-trafficking program in Indonesia. "It's like lambs to the slaughter," says Andreas Paulus of the charity Pancur Kasih, which runs a safe house in Indonesia for fugitive migrant workers who have been caught, punished and expelled from Malaysia.

“And yet the nature of the global economy makes it nearly impossible to avoid buying products of forced labor. Trapped workers on plantations in Malaysia harvest basic commodities like rubber and palm oil (for toothpaste, cosmetics and biofuels). "It's like I'm out of hell," says one Indonesian who says he spent seven months at a Malaysian rubber plantation working 13 hours a day, seven days a week without pay until he escaped—only to be arrested, imprisoned, flogged and deported. His story is consistent with numerous accounts collected by nongovernmental organizations in Indonesia. But when that plantation's harvest goes to market, it looks just like rubber from anywhere else.

“The British-based supermarket chain Tesco has its own problems with Bangladeshis who mop its floors in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur. One janitor tells NEWSWEEK he spent his family's savings, sold land and borrowed from loan sharks to pay $3,000 to a job broker in Bangladesh. Now his gross pay of roughly $200 a month is less than half what the broker promised—before deductions for food, housing and job-placement fees. If he works marathon shifts until his visa expires, he might clear $600 for three years' work. "I was cheated," says another cleaning-crew member. "I had dreamed of making my parents comfortable. I wanted to leave something for my children." Tesco, the world's third largest retailer after Wal-Mart and the French chain Carrefour, denies using forced labor and says it conducts "regular audits" to make sure foreign workers are treated fairly.

“So far, the international community has taken only small steps to control the traffic in forced labor. In response to complaints, Malaysia has called a temporary halt to imports of labor from Bangladesh. At the other end of the pipeline, the Dhaka government has vowed to investigate charges that Bangladesh's labor exports effectively constitute legalized slavery. But emancipation remains only a dream.”

Trapped: The Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia

“Trapped: The Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia” is a report by Amnesty International that documents widespread abuses against migrant workers from eight South Asian and Southeast Asian countries who are lured to Malaysia by the promise of jobs but are instead used in forced labour or exploited in other ways. "Migrant workers are critical to Malaysia's economy, but they systematically receive less legal protection than other workers," said Michael Bochenek, the report author and director of policy at Amnesty International. "They are easy prey for unscrupulous recruitment agents, employers and corrupt police." [Source: Amnesty International March 24, 2010]

Migrants, many from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Nepal, are forced to work in hazardous situations, often against their will, and toil for 12 hours a day or more. Many are subject to verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Most pay recruitment agents substantial sums of money to secure jobs, work permits and training. Once they arrive, they often find that much of what their agents told them about their new jobs is untrue — the pay, type of work, even the existence of those jobs or their legal status in the country.

Most workers have taken out loans at exorbitant interest rates and simply cannot afford to return to their home countries. Some are in situations close to bonded labour. Nearly all employers hold their workers' passports, placing workers at risk of arrest and in practice preventing them from leaving abusive workplaces. Coercive practices such as these are indicators of forced labour.

Labour laws are not effectively enforced, and labour courts may take months or years to resolve cases. For domestic workers, who are not covered by most of the labour laws, recourse to the courts is usually not an option. Amnesty International's report concludes that many workers are victims of human trafficking. The Malaysian government has the responsibility to prevent such abuses but instead facilitates trafficking through its loose regulation of recruitment agents and through laws and policies that fail to protect workers.

Many foreign workers are exploited by labor agents that take a large chunk of their salaries. In addition, Amnesty International heard over a dozen cases in which Malaysian authorities delivered immigration detainees to traffickers operating on the Thai border between 2006 and 2009. Amnesty International has called on the Malaysian government to reform its labour laws and promptly investigate abuses in the workplace and by police. Malaysia should also make more effective use of its Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act to prosecute individuals who recruit, transport or receive workers through fraud or deception in order to exploit them.

Amnesty International reports: Abused and Abandoned: Refugees Denied Rights in Malaysia (Report, 15 June 2010); Trapped: The Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia (Report, 24 March 2010); Malaysia must stop criminalizing migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers (Web action, 12 November 2010)

Foreign Workers and Crime in Malaysia

Foreigners were responsible for around 5,000 crimes in 2006, a government report said. A total of 226,836 police reports were filed that year. It not clear how many were criminal acts.

In March 2007, Baradan Kuppusamy wrote in the Asia Times, “While police statistics reveal that serious crime in Malaysia climbed 40 percent year-on-year in 2006, only 2 percent of criminal incidents were directly attributable to foreign workers. However, the state-controlled media, nationalistic lawmakers and the general public frequently blame foreign workers, who account for 12 percent of the total workforce of 12 million. The bulk of the blame falls on Indonesians, who form 65 percent of the foreign workforce. [Source: Baradan Kuppusamy, Asia Times, March 3, 2007 \=]

“Amnesty International warned that the use of migrants as scapegoats for criminal acts will increase racial and xenophobic prejudice against the migrant community in Malaysia. The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also condemned the government's plan to, what it said "virtually locks up workers". In a statement, the rights group said the resulting isolation would also put migrant workers at risk of other abuses.” \=\

Ahmed Badulla, 27, an iron foundry worker from Pakistan, told the Asia Times. "We are so busy working day and night to send money home. How can we commit crimes?" \=\

In one riot involving illegal immigrants, 2,500 inmates at a detention center revolted, and beat an unarmed police officer to death with a fence post. Eight prisoners were killed. In another riot, 2000 mostly Indonesia illegal immigrants detained at a Malaysian camp, burned down some of their quarters and had to be subdued by police using tear gas.

Tough Anti-Immigration Laws

In August 2002, a tough new immigration law were introduced. Anybody caught illegally entered Malaysia faced six strokes of a cane, a prison sentence of six months to five years, and a fine of up to $2,600. Before the new law was passed illegal immigrant were fined and imprisoned for up to three months. In the first 15 months after law were passed, 10,000 illegal immigrant were caned and hundreds of thousands were forced return to their home countries. The number of illegal immigrants dropped.

The new laws were accompanied by a crackdown on illegal immigrants that resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of mostly Indonesia and Philippine workers. After they were rounded up many of the workers were sent to remote detention centers with little clear water and poor sanitation. Some died at the camps. Others became so sick they died after they had been deported to their home countries. Both Indonesia and the Philippines were outraged by the deportations and asked the Malaysian government for a break but knowing there was little they could do, Malaysia refused to yield.

The reasons for the crackdown were not clear but seems to have been linked with protests by Indonesia workers over unfair working conditions, . The construction industry, which relies of foreign workers for laborers, complained the crackdown was causing delays and said few Malaysians were willing to take the jobs that were lost.

Malaysia Cuts and Bans Foreign Workers and Requires a Training Course for a Visa

In January 2008, as the global economic crisis was beginning take hold, the Malaysian government said it would to send home up to 500,000 foreign workers by 2009 in a bid to force employers here to hire locals. AFP reported: “The move follows a denial by the government earlier that it had frozen the recruitment of workers from India after reports quoted officials saying a ban was in place. "We have been lax with the ruling to allow employers to cut costs with cheaper foreign labour," the Home Ministry's top civil servant Raja Azahar Raja Abdul Manap told the Star daily. "But now, they have to turn to locals and pay a reasonable salary based on supply and demand," he added. [Source: AFP, January 19, 2008]

Raja Azahar told the paper his ministry was planning to have only 1.8 million foreign workers in the country by next year with the number dropping further to 1.5 million by 2015. He told the Star only foreign workers in the construction, manufacturing and plantation industries would be exempt from the plan. The government will not approve work permits of unskilled foreign workers in Malaysia for five years or more, it reported, with skilled workers getting a maximum of 10 years. New minimum requirements could also be introduced for employers of foreign domestic help, it reported. "We are looking into the possibility that only those who earn more that 5,000 ringgit (1,534 dollars) (compared to 3,000 ringgit presently) be allowed to employ foreign maids," he said.

In June 2008, Malaysia made it compulsory for all foreign workers to take a course to learn about Malaysia before coming to the country. Associated Press reported: Human Resources Minister S. Subramaniam said the induction course became mandatory to ensure workers know the country's customs, culture, language and laws before getting a work visa. Indonesians are exempt from the language requirement because the two dialects spoken in the neighboring countries are similar, he said. The course is aimed at familiarizing foreign workers with "what they should and shouldn't do (and) to reduce the risk of them getting into trouble when they are here," Subramaniam told The Associated Press. [Source: Associated Press, June 3 2008]

Malaysians complain that foreign workers are ill-equipped for working here and are responsible for the rising crime - an unsubstantiated claim from statistics. Several highly publicized cases of foreign worker abuse have further marred the issue. Subramaniam said the courses would take place in the workers' home countries, but Malaysia would supply the materials and train instructors.

Indonesian Embassy spokeswoman Shanti Utami criticized the new ruling, saying it would scare off Indonesian workers, who make up more than half of the foreign labor force. She said Indonesian employment agencies were "very reluctant" to deal with the new regulation and pay the course fees of at least 120 ringgit (US$37). "It is a very high price," she told the AP. "We have a common culture so I don't think this should be compulsory."

In January 2009, the BBC reported: “Malaysia has banned the hiring of new foreign workers in factories, shops and other services. The government said the move was to protect its citizens from unemployment during the economic downturn. It has also told employers that if they want to cut back their workforce they must sack foreign staff first. The ban on new foreign workers is indefinite and will affect key manufacturing and services sectors which currently employ about half of Malaysia's foreign workforce. Exemptions may be given to those working in highly skilled service industries and factories. [Source: BBC, January 22, 2009]

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar told the New Straits Times that the decision had been prompted by a human resources ministry report which showed 45,000 people would be laid off by the end of the month. "This is not the time for employers to ask for foreign workers," he told the newspaper. "The first to be retrenched should be foreigners and not locals," he added. Employers have been told that foreigners already working in Malaysia will be allowed to remain until their contract expires or until they are laid off.

Plan to Confine Foreign Workers to Cut Crime in Malaysia

In March 2007, Baradan Kuppusamy wrote in the Asia Times, “A plan by the Malaysian government to confine some 2.8 million foreign workers to their ramshackle living quarters in an effort to curb rising crime rates has outraged critics, who describe the move as a deplorable act of discrimination against an already vulnerable migrant community and a violation of international labor regulations. Foreign workers, opposition lawmakers, trade union officials and human-rights activists have come together to denounce the controversial plan, scheduled to be debated in parliament. "The plan discriminates and promotes prejudice against migrant workers. It is unbelievable," said Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a non-governmental organization dedicated to helping migrant workers. "These measures are against international labor rules and codes." [Source: Baradan Kuppusamy, Asia Times, March 3, 2007 \=]

“The measures are said to be part of a major policy shift in the government's management of foreign workers from the Human Resources Ministry to the Home Affairs Ministry which, some critics say, blanket categorizes migrant workers as a security problem. Under the proposed legislation, many functions traditionally handled by the Human Resources, Tourism and Health ministries will now come under Home Affairs, which oversees police, international security and the People's Volunteer Corps. \=\

“Under the plan, the workers, mostly employed in the construction, manufacturing and plantation sectors, will be confined to their ramshackle quarters - known locally as kongsi - which usually consist of zinc roofing sheets and plywood and are located inside or near their workplaces. The proposed rule will apply even on their days of rest, when many off-duty workers head for the cinemas, shopping complexes or beer parlors.

If the new law is passed, it will see them confined to their quarters unless they have express permission from their employers to leave their workplaces. Employers will also be required to keep a logbook detailing the daily movements of their foreign employees for spot inspections by police. "This way we can keep track of the workers and arrest them if they are involved in crime," said Musa Hassan, the inspector-general of police. "Instead of improving the situation, Malaysia's proposed foreign worker bill will dramatically worsen the situation," said Nisha Varia, senior researcher on women's rights in Asia for HRW. "It's shocking that Malaysia is even considering such a proposal that would give employers freedom to lock up workers." \=\

“The new proposed measures have come under heavy criticism, with international rights groups, including London-based Amnesty International (AI), which has said migrant workers, like ordinary people, are entitled to fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Malaysia's own constitution. "This includes the right to liberty and security; to equality before the law without discrimination, the right to freedom of movement as well as to the presumption of innocence," said AI country director Josef Roy Benedict. "These measures are themselves human-rights violations and a form of punishment," he said, adding that a person's liberty can be suspended only if he is proved to have committed a crime that warrants imprisonment by a court of law and after a fair trial. \=\

Even the semi-official New Straits Times daily newspaper voiced apprehension, saying it is questionable whether controlling the movement of foreign workers will "quell the rising tide of crime". "The question is whether confinement would be a justifiable pre-emptive measure - in terms of fair treatment of the foreign workers and the extra responsibilities that would be visited upon the employer to make sure that his workers stay confined, and presumably out of mischief," the daily said in a February 20 editorial. "In addition, the cramped and sometimes deplorable living conditions in the typical kongsi are hardly conditions one should want to confine workers within," the daily said. "Such well-meaning solutions may work in an ideal world. But in the present circumstances, given the sheer numbers and distribution of foreign workers in Malaysia and the remoteness of many worksites using these workers, such measures might not only be unenforceable but might well create new problems without solving the ones they target." \=\

Foreign Workers Arrested in Malaysia

In 1994, some 1,200 Filipina maids were arrested in Malaysia on Palm Sunday in a church as part of crackdown on undocumented workers. All were later freed expect for 32, who had overstayed their visas.

In November 2000, 225 migrants from the Philippines were arrested after helicopters and speedboats were used to corner them in an island off the coast of Borneo. Another 900 families without proper documents were evicted from the island.

According to Amnesty International: Malaysia imposes severe and excessive criminal penalties — in some cases caning — on migrants who work without proper permits, even when errors by the employer are the reason for immigration violations. Large-scale, public roundups in markets and on city streets and indiscriminate, warrantless raids on private dwellings in poorer neighbourhoods are common. Police frequently ask migrants for bribes. Those who cannot pay are arrested and held in deplorable conditions in immigration detention centres. [Source: Amnesty International March 24, 2010]

Reuters reported: “At times, Malaysia's illegal immigrants problem has been almost comic. Thousands of Indonesians voluntarily surrender themselves for deportation each year ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid. Given a free passage home, they enjoy a break with their families before sneaking back across the border to resume work. [Source: Reuters, March 1, 2005]

See Caning

Massive Hunt for Illegal Workers in Malaysia

In February 2005, more than 300,000 officials and volunteers were deployed in Malaysia's biggest crackdown against illegal migrant workers after a government amnesty expires today. "We will be strict but fair the operation will target both illegal migrants and Malaysian employers who hire these people," Ishak Mohammad, the immigration enforcement chief who is coordinating the crackdown, said. "Those illegals who remain in the country probably think we are not serious," Ishak said. "But these migrants and their employers better be warned ... the crackdown is on and there is no turning back." About 400,000 illegal migrants have returned home during the four-month amnesty period. [Source: AP, February 28, 2005]

Associated Press reported: Ishak “said about 300,000 policemen, government officials and civilian volunteers will fan out across the country starting tomorrow to catch an estimated half million illegal workers who have remained despite three extensions to the amnesty since October. He called the upcoming crackdown "the most comprehensive action taken to weed out the problem of illegal migrants in Malaysia."

“The government has faced accusations from Malaysians that it has been too soft on the illegal migrants who have been blamed for adding to the country's crime rate and social problems. Those who returned home under the amnesty will be allowed to re-enter for work, provided they have valid papers. Those who remain illegally faced arrest, fines, jail terms and possibly lashings with a rattan cane before being deported. They will also be barred from returning to Malaysia even as tourists. Indonesian authorities have opened "one-stop processing centres" in major Indonesian cities and ports to issue travel documents to let workers return to Malaysia with minimum fuss, Indonesian and Malaysian officials said.

After the amnesty expired, Reuters reported: “Malaysian officials began a nationwide roundup of illegal immigrants, with volunteer squads launching night-time raids on building sites, plantations and restaurants. In one early-morning raid witnessed by Reuters, immigration officials armed with pistols stormed workers' huts at a muddy construction site outside the capital, rousing 243 labourers from their sleep and finding 19 without proper papers."We will detain them for 14 days and check out their documents," said Mahadi Arshad, the chief of a volunteer force that is spearheading the campaign to drive out illegal migrants, most of whom come from poorer neighbour, Indonesia. "Then immigration authorities will decide whether to deport or to detain them." “An immigration official told Reuters that 131 people had been detained so far following some 28 raids carried out nationwide. Similar scenes played out across the country in the first hours of Malaysia's biggest crackdown on illegal immigrants since 2002. [Source: Reuters, March 1, 2005]

“Mahadi said about 25,000 of the 300,000 members of his force had been trained and deployed to flush out illegal workers. Led by six armed officers, about 400 volunteers marched into the construction site at Cheras, 8 kilometers from the centre of Kuala Lumpur, and trudged through mud to reach the workers' huts, woke up the labourers, and lined them up in rows. "This is the life of a worker on a construction site — I'm used to being woken up late at night and told to show my papers," said Purnipuna, who carried a baby on her hip and whom authorities had allowed to go. The Indonesian said she had worked in Malaysia since 1984, and had four children studying in Malaysian schools. "I don't like to be woken up this early in the morning," said Ubey Mahmood, 27, an Indonesian worker from central Java who maintained his papers were in order. He, and others like him, are unlikely to get much respite. "These operations will continue until the government is satisfied," said Mahadi, the chief of the volunteer force, when asked how long the nightly raids would run.

“Raids to hunt illegal migrants were also being carried out in Malaysia's eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, he added, but he had no results of those operations yet. The round-up promises to be Malaysia's largest such operation since 2002, when human rights groups criticised it for holding people in overcrowded detention centres and deporting them en masse, including some likely to be genuine asylum-seekers.

Illegal Migrants in Sabah Targeted for Deportation

After the poor showing of the ruling party in election in 2008 in Sabah, where migrants from the Philippines and Indonesia who have flooded in, and are blamed for drugs and crime. illegal migrants were targeted with a massive deportation program. Authorities say there are 130,000 illegal migrants in Sabah, but local politicians put the figure as high as 500,000.

AFP reported: “After a poor result in March elections that made it more sensitive to voter gripes, the national government has announced a mass crackdown to send the illegal migrants back to their home countries. "The people there do not recognize the borders. They move in and out due to economic opportunities in Sabah," Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said recently, promising that a "large scale" operation would begin in August. [Source: Agence France-Presse August 5, 2008]

Cabinet minister Bernard Dompok, Dompok, leader of the UPKO party which is part of the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia for half a century, said Sabahans have becoming increasingly concerned about the number of foreigners. "I think the focus of those involved in illegal immigration during that time was to ensure there was a change in the demography of Sabah's population," he told Agence France-Presse. "But of course today, in the whole of Sabah, no matter what race or origin or religion, the people are now worried over this perennial problem," he said.

Najib has said that at least 100,000 to 150,000 people will be deported in the first phase of an ongoing program that will continue until the state is clear of illegal migrants. Earlier, Najib said authorities will also bolster security along Malaysia's land and sea borders with the Philippines and Indonesia to prevent further illegal crossings. "The root cause is because the borders are very porous and traditionally the people there do not recognize the borders. They move in and out due to economic opportunities in Sabah," he said.

Najib said that since the 1990s, at least 300,000 illegal migrants have been deported from Sabah. Najib said Malaysian authorities will hold talks with their counterparts in the Philippines and Indonesia to organize the mass deportation.

Malaysia Bans Then Rescinds Ban on Intake of Indian Workers

In January 2008, News Agencies reported: Malaysia has suspended the recruitment of workers from India and Bangladesh, the government said on Tuesday, in a move one official said could be linked to a recent uproar about Malaysia's treatment of ethnic Indians. The ban, which took effect from Dec 31, 2007, could further strain relations between the two countries after some Indian politicians sympathised with ethnic Indians who said they have been marginalised by the Malay-majority government. [Source: Agencies, January 8, 2008]

"The Cabinet decided about two weeks ago to freeze the intake of workers from India and Bangladesh," a Home Ministry official said. Existing workers from the two countries would not have their work permits renewed, he said, adding that the ban applied to all categories of workers including professionals. Ethnic Indians held a mass anti-government protest in November, alleging that the authorities have sidelined the community because of an affirmative action policy that favours the majority ethnic Malays.

The next day, news agencies reported: “ Malaysia has not frozen the recruitment of workers from India, a Cabinet minister said, denying earlier reports by government officials that triggered a furor in India. Government officials gave no explanation for the flip-flop. One Home Ministry official had told AP that the ban was related to recent unrest among Malaysia’s minority ethnic Indians, who are demanding racial equality in the Muslim-majority country. Another ministry official also confirmed the ban order. Both spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy. [Source: Agencies, January 9, 2008]

About 140,000 Indian migrants work in Malaysia, comprising the third largest group of foreign workers. Most take low-paying jobs as waiters, barbers and gardeners. Some, however, hold top professional posts in banks and information technology industries. In November, about 20,000 ethnic Indians, most of whom are Hindus, demonstrated on the streets, complaining of discrimination, in a rare and open challenge to the government.

Amnesty of Illegal Foreign Labor in Malaysia

In October and November 2004, illegal workers were given a 17-day amnesty that allowed them to voluntarily leave the country without being arrested or punished. Malaysia said it hoped to evict 400,000 of the estimated 1.2 million illegal workers in the country at that time.

In August 2011, Malaysia began registering up to 2 million illegal immigrant workers in an amnesty program aimed at managing waves of foreigners seeking menial jobs unwanted by Malaysians. Eileen Ng of Associated Press wrote: “The program should make it easier to fill labor shortages for low-paying jobs at palm oil plantations, factories, construction sites and restaurants. It also means foreigners like Bangladeshi Jueil Bepari, who for three years has done odd jobs including working as a gas station attendant, will no longer have to dodge Malaysian authorities for fear of being jailed, whipped with a cane or deported. "I am always in fear of being caught. I dare not go to the shops or visit my friends," 23-year-old Bepari said after registering and receiving a six-month pass to stay in the country while applying for a work permit. [Source: Eileen Ng, Associated Press , August 1, 2011]

The government hopes that absorbing illegal laborers like Bepari into the mainstream work force it can allow outsiders to take up the many menial jobs shunned by locals. It also plans to build an immigrant database, including fingerprints, to improve security. Malaysia has some 4 million foreign workers, only half of whom are in the Southeast Asian country legally. Despite years of earlier efforts to cut dependence on foreign labor, demand for foreign workers is likely to keep growing at a yearly average of 6-7 percent until 2015 — twice as fast as the overall labor market, according to director Shamsuddin Bardan of the Malaysian Employers Federation.

The amnesty program involves fingerprinting each immigrant worker and checking their employment credentials. Officials said those not already employed or unable to join the work force would be deported. One Malaysian state began the program earlier on July 18. Eastern Sahab, on Borneo island, has so far signed up 116,000 workers, the Home Ministry said. Sabah ends its program Aug. 8, while the rest of the country finishes Aug. 14.

Some labor activists urged the government to halt the program, saying more oversight is needed to prevent workers from being treated unfairly. Rights groups Tenaganita and the Malaysian Trade Union Congress voiced concern that workers whose employers did not renew their work visas could also be penalized. They also alleged that some of the 336 companies hired to help run the program were charging more than the allowed 35-ringgit ($12) registration fee. The Immigration Department vowed to investigate any alleged violations, communications director Aiza Mahani Mozi said, without elaborating on whether complaints had been received.

Labor Shortage in Malaysia After Limits Placed on Foreign Workers

Reporting from Kuala Lumpur,Liz Gooch wrote in the New York Times, “It is lunchtime at the Wangsa Ukay restaurant in suburban Kuala Lumpur, and regulars are coming in for local favorites like roti canai, chicken curry and teh tarik, the sweet, milky drink that is ubiquitous across Malaysia. The owner, Muneandy Nalepan, has time to stop and talk for now, but when peak times hit on weekends, he and his wife must pitch in to help clear tables. He used to have a staff of 120 — almost all foreigners — working in his five restaurants across the city. But after the government made it more difficult for businesses to hire workers from abroad, he is down to 80 because he has been unable to replace the 40 employees who had to return home after the maximum work period of five years. [Source: Liz Gooch, New York Times, August 31, 2009]

“Unable to find Malaysians willing to work as cooks, waiters or dishwashers, he is awaiting approval to employ more foreigners. But if he cannot get more workers soon, he says, he might close one of his outlets. Mr. Muneandy, an 18-year veteran of the industry, is even considering other business ventures. “To run a restaurant, it’s becoming impossible,” he said. It is not just restaurant owners who are complaining. Many business owners, like furniture producers and rubber glove manufacturers, say a labor shortage is harming productivity. In January 2009, Malaysia sharply curtailed the hiring of new foreign workers in the manufacturing and service sectors after a government report predicted that 45,000 people could be laid off during the Lunar New Year at the end of that month, The New Straits Times reported. “There is no valid reason to bring in foreign workers at this time,” Syed Hamid Albar, the home minister, told the paper. The action was backed by labor groups. The Malaysian Trades Union Congress proposed a freeze on the recruitment of foreign workers last October.

In 2008, there were an estimated 2.2 million foreigners were working legally in Malaysia. Some reports suggested the country was home to an additional one million illegal workers. By March 2009, the number of foreigners with work permits had fallen to 1.9 million, according to Shamsuddin Bardan, executive director of the Malaysian Federation of Employers. “About 300,000 permits were not renewed, and people were sent back,” he said.

Mr. Shamsuddin said that companies could still apply to recruit foreigners but that the process had become more difficult. For example, he said that since April 1, employers have had to advertise vacancies locally for two months, up from one month, before they could apply to recruit foreigners. And employers must now pay an annual levy — as much as 1,800 ringgit — for any new foreigners they employ, he said. The fee used to be paid by workers. Mr. Shamsuddin said the government abandoned plans to double the levy after the federation complained.

Dominant Semiconductor, a light bulb manufacturer with factories in Malaysia and China, is struggling to fill about 1,000 vacancies. Its chairman, Goh Nan Kioh, said the company was allowed to employ one foreigner for every local worker, but could not find enough Malaysians to help increase its total work force. If the labor shortage continued, he said, the company might consider moving more of its labor-intensive operations to China.

Liz Gooch wrote in the New York Times, “Mohamed Ariff, executive director of the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research, said the country’s dependence on foreign labor was a result of a decision to “open the floodgates” to migrant workers in the late 1980s, first in the plantation sector, then in manufacturing. Mr. Ariff said that in the early 1990s, when wages in the manufacturing sector were rising, factories had considered introducing labor-saving technology but that many had shelved those plans when the government let them employ more foreign workers. “The technology transfer suffered enormously,” he said. “Malaysia was trapped into an unskilled, labor-intensive economy.” [Source: Liz Gooch, New York Times, August 31, 2009]

Efforts to Bring Health Care to Migrant Workers in Malaysia

Liz Ford wrote in The Guardian, “Business at the clinic is winding down. It's 10.30am on Thursday and the six women and three men sitting on the rows of blue plastic chairs and wooden benches are waiting to be seen before the doctor leaves in half an hour's time. On the walls are large posters listing methods of contraception; diagrams of how to spot possible signs of breast and cervical cancer, and how to breastfeed a child. It's stiflingly hot; the three ceiling fans do little to cool the air. Two morning sessions with the doctor are held at Pudu clinic, a 25-minute drive from the centre of Kuala Lumpur. The clinic offers a range of medical services, but focuses on providing family planning and reproductive healthcare to marginalised groups.[Source: Liz Ford, The Guardian, May 31, 2013 /=/]

“The clinic, one of three in Malaysia's capital offering services to migrant workers, is managed by the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia (FRHAM), a member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). It's been in the area since the 1960s. But, four years ago, a noticeable increase in the number of migrant workers arriving from Burma, Afghanistan and Indonesia prompted FRHAM to tailor its support. Often these marginalised groups, which include refugees, labourers, domestic workers and sex workers, feel uncomfortable visiting government clinics because of their precarious status. As of the end of March 2013, more than 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Burma, were registered in Malaysia with the UN high commissioner for refugees, UNHCR. With a regular supply of contraceptives from IPPF, and volunteer nurses and doctors, the clinic began outreach programmes to these groups. /=/

“It now has a daily stream of patients, particularly when doctors are on site. Visitors can buy cheap contraceptives (the price, about $2.60 for a month's supply, is lower than private clinics or pharmacies), get cancer screening, advice on the menopause, pre- and post-abortion counselling, and HIV testing. Young, unmarried people are particularly encouraged to attend. "The value of the clinic is we have made it accessible for the migrant community to come in," says Doris Louis, a project manager at FRHAM. "Migrant workers prefer to come to us because they do not feel so welcome in government settings. A lot of questions are asked and they feel they are being stigmatised … This clinic is accessible, affordable, and the nurses and doctors are easy to talk to." /=/

Malaysian Union: Hire Refugees Instead of Foreigners

In February 2010, Bernama reported: “The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) wants the Government to allow refugees to work in labour-strapped organisations instead of importing foreign workers. Its secretary-general G. Rajasegaran said the thousands of refugees now in the country could be easily absorbed as workers in the various industries. By doing so, the Government would not only be able to save millions of ringgit in sustaining these refugees but Malaysia would also gain world recognition for being a humane country, he said. [Source: Bernama. February 12, 2010]

Rajasegaran was commenting on the recent announcement that 100,000 new visas were approved for foreign workers in the last three months. He said the Government should thoroughly study the needs of industries before approving the permits because the information provided by some companies could be misleading. He claimed that an MTUC survey last year found that some companies got rid of workers with high salaries and replaced them with lowly paid staff. [Source: Bernama. February 12, 2010]

Their modus operandi was to offer a voluntary separation scheme (VSS) to workers earning between RM900 and RM1,500 and then employ workers earning salaries of between RM500 and RM600 in their place, he added. He said that by doing so they justified their need for foreign workers and the Government took their request at face value and approved the permits. The other flaw in the recruitment of foreign workers, he pointed out, was that the approval was done by the Home Ministry which did not seem to have proper coordination with the Human Resources Ministry. He also said that the 272 registered outsourcing companies were another reason for the “excess of foreign workers in the country,” claiming that these companies often brought in workers in excess of actual need.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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