The Sad Lot of Migrant Workers Affects Us All


For years, I have spoken both in and outside Parliament about the need for Malaysia to empower women in economic and public life.

We need to increase our female labour participation rate, provide better social security for housewives, and help more women get into decision-making positions.

While the quest for gender equality and gender mainstreaming is still a steep uphill task, there is one group of women in Malaysia who are seldom on the radar of gender equality advocates at all. We all see them, but we hardly notice them; we all hear about them, but we hardly hear them. These are women migrant workers.

Officially there are about two million documented migrant workers in Malaysia,and another two million are undocumented migrants. In other words, at least two in 10 persons in Malaysia are migrants. Documented migrant workers alone make up about 16% of our total population – more than the Indian, Kadazan and Iban population in this country put together.

According to a 2015 World Bank report, three-quarters of all jobs in Malaysia are still in the low- and mid-skilled range. Due to the higher educational attainments of Malaysians and their aspirations for higher skilled jobs, the economy requires migrant workers to fill the workforce gaps.

Among migrant workers from the top five countries of national origin put together, women constitute about 20% (315,093) out of the 1.9 million people.

In the largest group, the Indonesians, women make up more than 33%, and more than a third of them are domestic workers.

For Malaysia, only women can apply to be foreign domestic workers. According to the Home Ministry, there were 136,213 foreign domestic workers in Malaysia in 2016, with 96% of them coming from Indonesia (93,098), and the Philippines (37,550).

The Valuable Contribution of Migrant Workers

I have written elsewhere about the problems with our immigration policy. These problems are not about whether Malaysia needs migrant workers or not. In fact, they stem from the government’s lack of a coordinated strategy to fully utilise the local workforce and to tap into the global workforce.

Several recent studies have shown the positive impact that migrant workers have on our economy, such as the World Bank’s Malaysia Economic Monitor released in December 2015.

Foreign domestic workers enable Malaysian women to return to the job market and spend more time at work. Studies have consistently shown how the availability of migrant domestic workers helps to increase the labour participation rate of women outside the home. This is the case also in Malaysia.

As can be expected, the impact of migrant domestic workers on local women’s employment varies across different sectors. For example, the impact is negative in the manufacturing industry and positive in the services industry, “especially in finance, business and real estate, insurance, health, and other high value-added services”. The overall effect however, is positive: a 2012 World Bank report states that “for every 1,000 immigrants in the economy, 235 jobs are created for women, 80 of them part-time.”

Migrant Workers Have No Country

Workers have no country, so goes the old saying. This is even truer for migrant workers because not only are they strangers in the host country where they work, but more often than not, they enjoy little or no protection from their home country either.

Female migrant workers in Malaysia face a myriad of challenges and problems.

Reports from the US Department of State Trafficking in Persons (TIP) throughout the years have highlighted that migrant workers in Malaysia are “subjected to forced labor or debt bondage by their employers, employment agents, or informal labor recruiters [and] have heightened vulnerabilities to exploitative labor conditions and reduced ability to resolve disputes.”

Physical abuse is also common. While several high-profile cases have been reported in the news, and the perpetrators, often employers, arrested and sentenced, many female migrant workers suffer in silence.

The occurrence of abuse has been so bad that Indonesia in 2009 and Cambodia in 2011 actually issued a moratorium on sending their female citizens to Malaysia as domestic workers. No doubt the moratoriums are now lifted, as the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report states that “Cambodian women remain subjected to domestic servitude.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Many women migrant workers are also reported to have become victims of human trafficking, forced sex trade and brokered marriages. The undocumented ones are subjected to much more bullying by both the authorities and unscrupulous parties who wish to take advantage of their situation.

Women migrant workers leave behind their family and loved ones to work in Malaysia in order to provide a better life for them. They, along with other migrant workers, are integral to the Malaysian economy whether we like to think so or not. They are also vulnerable in that being foreigners, social and economic problems in the country are easily blamed on them.

They are vulnerable because they lack the protection of the law, whether in Malaysia or in their home country, and are therefore easily subjected to all sorts of bullying.

They are vulnerable because in our patriarchal culture, when even Malaysian women face discrimination every day and everywhere, they get to taste a double and triple dosage of bigotry.

Women and men of conscience, therefore, must rise. We should not allow fellow human beings to be subjected to oppression and assault. A society that allows barbaric treatment of others affects everyone, citizens or not. It is not difficult to imagine that the bullying can soon become widespread and the social norm, exercised by individuals and by the institutions of the government. Reversing this trend has to start now, and be started by each one of us.

Steven Sim Chee Keong is MP for Bukit Mertajam. He is also on the board of directors of the Penang Institute.

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