We rely heavily on migrant workers to build our lives the way we want, from cementing our roads to mopping our floors. But there is little protection for these communities, with NGOs voicing more concern for their safety and dignity.
According to official figures, there are around two million documented migrants in Malaysia1. However, the World Bank estimates there could be up to 3.5 million migrant workers here2. If these figures are true, it would make Malaysia the largest migrant-receiving country in Southeast Asia.
Many migrants live between a rock and a hard place
However, the grass is not always greener on the other side. In Malaysia, migrant workers often live between a rock and a hard place. With debts from high recruitment fees and a family to support back home, desperation to clear debts and earn an income makes them vulnerable to exploitation. According to Tenaganita, an NGO that has worked with migrants since the early 1980s, many do not get paid, suffer abuse, injury and at times even death at the hands of their employers3.
The majority of us [migrant workers] do not have a work permit. For some, they may have it, but many of those are fake work permits received via the under-the-table setting7.REHMAT,
PAKISTANI MIGRANT WORKER in malaysia
Migrant workers service the millions of low-skill jobs that enable our economy to run. From construction to plantations and agriculture, they keep our supermarkets stocked, develop our cities and even serve our teh tarik when we stop for a tea break. And yet, they are often treated with little dignity.
As the world reeled from the pandemic, migrants found their lives completely upended
As many Malaysians lost jobs and struggled to survive through the various lockdowns in the past two years, migrant workers faced even greater challenges5. The first to find themselves unpaid for their labour, many were left vulnerable to employer abuse and without government or legal assistance.
In late 2020, news broke revealing the dirty and cramped living conditions of Top Glove’s worker dormitories that led to a cluster of COVID-19 cases. The close quarters and poorly ventilated spaces meant physical distancing and proper hygiene measures were impossible to achieve, leading to the virus’ spread.
In Malaysia, migrant workers in certain accommodation types only need to be provided 3 m2 of space4. That’s the same amount of space for humanitarian crises situations, and barely enough for decent living.
“The COVID-19 pandemic brought attention to the low standards of accommodation for many migrant workers in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. While some improvements have taken place and must be recognised, there is still a long way to go to ensure that all migrant workers enjoy the decent and adequate accommodation they have the right to4.”Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa
ILO Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific
Change is happening at the top, but work must also happen from the ground up
In November 2021, Putrajaya announced a National Action Plan on Forced Labour, with the intention to eliminate harmful practices affecting the labour population, especially migrant workers by 2030. There has been global pressure as in the past two years, seven Malaysian companies have faced US import bans due to allegations of forced labour6.
United States ambassador Brian McFeeters and British High Commissioner Charles Hay published a joint opinion piece in February 2022, acknowledging the government’s efforts to end forced labour and stating that “plans must turn into action.”
Malaysian companies are justifiably proud of the quality of their products. What if they could be equally proud of how they treat workers? That would require large, medium and small business owners and executives to make such a determination and take action to treat workers well8.CHARLES HAY, BRITISH HIGH COMMISSIONER TO MALAYSIA and BRIAN MCFEETERS, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO MALAYSIA
How can we do our part for migrant workers among us?
In Deuteronomy, God commanded the Israelites to love the foreigners among them, reminding them that they were once foreigners in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19). Psalm 146 says that the Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow. It’s clear that God deeply loves the migrant community, and cares about their well-being.
Say a prayer for the millions of migrant workers in our land, who have left their homes and everything familiar in pursuit of a better future for themselves and their families. Pray that Malaysians will treat migrant workers with dignity and respect, whether out in the open or in their homes; for effective policies protecting migrants’ rights to be implemented and executed with fairness and transparency. Pray that Malaysia will be known as a land where every person, regardless of background or status, is honoured for their contribution.
Don’t keep silent if you witness the mistreatment of migrant workers around you. Report the incident to the authorities and alert NGOs who can provide the individual with protection and legal assistance. Speak up for fair treatment of workers, decent wages and a culture of respect at the workplace.
Whether in donations, time or skills, God can use you to change a life. If migrant issues are close to your heart but you’ve been looking for an opportunity to get more involved, perhaps today is the day. Check out the work being done by NGOs such as Tenaganita, Migrant Care and Migrant Ministry Klang.
In following Christ, we are compelled to love others. Our country, Malaysia, is being built on the backs of the millions of migrant workers in our communities. May we treat every person we meet with dignity, love and compassion today.
1. Triangle in ASEAN: Quarterly Briefing Note, Malaysia (July-Dec 2021), International Labour Organization
2. Malaysia, International Organization for Migration
3. Migrant Rights Protection, Tenaganita
4. Migrant worker accommodation standards in ASEAN need further improvement, March 2022, International Labour Organization
5. The Impact of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers in Malaysia by Tenaganita, 2021, Electronics Watch
6. Rock-bottom wages, poor treatment of migrant workers hurt economic development, US, UK envoy tells Putrajaya, 2022, Malay Mail
7. Migrant Workers in Malaysia: COVID-19’s Impact on the Rights of their Children and Siblings in Pakistan, 2021, International Journal of Children’s Rights
8. Join forces with us to end forced labour, say UK and US envoys, 2022, Malaysiakini
9. Cover Image: Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa on Unsplash