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Job Scam Crisis Among Bangladeshi Workers In Malaysia

Updated: Mar 25

Foreign workers in Kuala Lumpur line up during a coronavirus screening process in 2020. Photo: Mustaqim Khairuddin/Bernama/dpa

I recently saw a news report about a construction company allegedly bringing 93 Bangladeshi migrant workers into Malaysia who had been found stranded in a derelict shophouse in Cheras. The whistleblower of the plight was Andy Hall, a migrant worker rights specialist, who had then interviewed the workers. He reported that over 100 migrated workers had to live in a confined space with only one toilet within the dilapidated building for over 4 months. Each worker paid a recruitment fee of between RM19,500 and RM21,700 to secure employment in Malaysia, where they were promised good living conditions and high-paying jobs. But upon arrival in Malaysia, things have only gone into a downward spiral. Their passports were confiscated, and they suffered from physical and verbal abuse, believed to be conducted by the agents of the recruitment crime syndicates. The hope of these Bangladeshi workers in seeking a better future in a foreign land has not only shattered but their situation has been made even worse by getting pushed deeper into a debt bondage, leaving them down and out with no jobs and no income.

Unfortunately, stories about the welfare issues of migrant workers are not uncommon in Malaysia, but they have been swept under the carpet, away from the public’s eyes. In addition to the exploitation and unethical recruitment practices, our society has neglected their welfare and viewed the community with a side-eye. A recent incident that happened in December last year saw the arrest of 171 Bangladeshi workers after they arrived at a police station in Pengerang, Johor, to file a report against their employer for leaving them in a similar predicament. Another famous case worth mentioning is Al Jazeera’s documentary on the migrant workers’ living conditions during the COVID-19 lockdown. The documentary shed some light on the low-income, precarious jobs and poor living standards of migrant workers in Malaysia. However, the report stirred huge controversies in the country, exacerbating the tension between the Malaysian government and the migrant workers’ community. The tension was further heightened last December when a police raid was carried out along Jalan Tun Tan Siew. Over 1,100 undocumented migrants were detained after the raid on the road, which is pejoratively dubbed “Mini Dhaka'' by the locals, and fueled xenophobic views against them among some Malaysians. This incident caused more and more migrant workers to be afraid of walking on our street.

According to data from the Department of Statistics, there are currently 2.13 million regular migrant workers in active employment in Malaysia, making up about 14% of the workforce. These workers are normally employed in plantations, manufacturing, and construction sectors, as well as recruited as security and domestic help. With such a huge volume of workers making up the country’s total workforce, it is hard to deny that these low-skilled migrant workers play an essential role in building the country’s economy. Think about the road maintenance and construction works around your neighbourhood. They tend to be fulfilled by migrant workers who do not mind working in the scorching sun. Not to mention the people who clean our trash or wash dirty dishes at your favourite kopitiam. Jobs like these are mostly taken up by migrant workers, as most Malaysians would shy away from such menial tasks but chase after white-collar jobs that promise higher wages and ‘a better future’. A survey conducted by the Malaysian Employer’s Federation (MEF) reported that the main reason around 78% of their 101 member companies recruited migrant workers was due to a shortage of local workers in filling vacancies. This might explain why our country has been heavily reliant on cheap migrant labour and has struggled to hire local workers for low-skilled jobs. Therefore, what are the solutions available for us to implement to protect the social welfare of migrant workers while ensuring our country is on the pathway to a successful economic structural transformation?

First and foremost, I believe that our society should reinforce job protection for all migrant workers, who are certainly owed a duty of care. Our country must commit to protecting migrant workers’ rights at all times, regardless of their nationalities, religions, genders, and social backgrounds. This includes overhauling existing regulations to safeguard workers’ undisputed access to healthcare services and decent living conditions, holding employers and all authorities along the migrant workers’ employment line accountable for any form of mistreatment of workers, and ensuring all companies are paying them with at least the minimum wages. This could prevent any further exploitation of migrant workers by the recruitment agencies.

Fundamentally, Malaysians should understand that the economic value of such a large workforce in our country is definitely not a burden but an asset for the transition to a more advanced Malaysian economy. Some research has proven that Malaysian manufacturing firms are not competitive enough in the face of global technological advancement, as 90% of the firms had fewer than 75 employees each. We can see the global trend of many foreign companies like Tesla and Amazon placing their manufacturing hubs in the Asian market. Improving the competitiveness of the Malaysian workforce coupled with the existing migrant workers, could make Malaysia a more competitive market that attracts more foreign investment. With more wealth flowing into the market, it could boost the structural transformation that our country has been looking forward to.

My inspiration for this article is fueled by a YouTube video about the ongoing unrest of Ireland’s anti-immigration protest. The protestors are fed up with the Irish government for welcoming hundreds and thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Nigeria, Pakistan, and Ukraine, to their shore and populating many of their small towns and villages. The fear of the displacement of their jobs, soaring housing costs, and poor safety of their community are what motivated the protest, despite denying that they are xenophobic or racist. Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities plan to slash the migrant workforce amid the job scam crisis and wean the country off its addiction to cheap migrant labour. The government has already capped the intake of new migrant workers to a target of 2.55 million, with a deadline of May 31 set as the last day for employers to bring in new workers into the country. I could not help but notice the trend of many countries steering their way toward a more conservative and right-wing approach in recent years when it comes to dealing with the influx of immigrants. It is also easy to target these vulnerable immigrants as scapegoats for many of our social and economic failures, which could easily teeter toward xenophobia. From these ongoing instances, it is important to set out a clear approach to safeguard the rights of all immigrants and approve their arrival to make these migrant workers feel safe anywhere in our societies. After all, these migrant workers probably sacrificed a lot of things such as being away from their families and risking most of their savings to make it here. So, I just hope that we can treat them a little bit kinder as a society.

By, Ronin Lim. Journalist, Charisma Movement 23/24.

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