a deeper look at migrant workers in Malaysia
period from the second half of 2004 through to the beginning
of 2005 was a vulnerable time for Indonesian migrant workers
in Malaysia, who were besieged with uncertainties. The
Malaysian government had already warned in July 2004 that
mass deportations of undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia
would again be carried out based on its Immigration Act
policy would be enforced by mobilising around 560,000
civilians -- members of the People's Volunteers Union,
RELA - as the spearhead of raids to arrest and evict those
carrying no documents.
the Malaysian government's early warning, no significant
response came from the Indonesian government to anticipate
the implementation of this policy. The government had
apparently learned nothing from the bitter experience
of the Nunukan tragedy in September-October 2002, when
some 350,000 migrant workers were deported from Sabah,
Malaysia, to the Indonesian frontier town of Nunukan,
East Kalimantan. Because the Indonesian government failed
to handle the case seriously the deportees were badly
neglected, resulting in the deaths of at least 85 and
thousands of others starving and suffering various diseases.
lack of serious response certainly caused concern about
the safety of the country's migrant workers in Malaysia.
The target of Malaysia's mass deportation operation was
set at around 1.2 million people, mostly comprising some
800,000 undocumented migrant workers of Indonesian origin.
about 250,000 of these Indonesians returned home under
an offered amnesty, while over 500,000 others remained
in Malaysia. It is these migrant workers that the Malaysian
government is targeting in its latest arrest and expulsion
Indonesian government's less than earnest endeavors can
be traced to its failure to oppose an article in a Memorandum
of Understanding (MOU) regarding migrant workers between
Indonesia and Malaysia that was signed in May 2004, which
gave authority to Malaysian employers to hold the passports
of Indonesian migrant workers. This effectively put their
papers under their employers' control making migrant workers'
position subordinate to their employers. In the event
of conflict or disagreement, employers will frequently
hold onto workers' documents. Consequently, the workers
lose their papers and thus risk being considered illegal
Indonesian government, too, has systematically stigmatised
and criminalised its undocumented migrant workers just
as the Malaysian government has done so. By calling them
"illegal Indonesian migrant workers", the government
has effectively blamed the victims.
first thing the Indonesian government questions is the
legal or illegal status of migrant workers, though the
cases they face are serious and require immediate attention.
The Indonesian government's slow response to the death
sentence imposed on Suhaidi bin Asnawi, a migrant worker
from Lombok, was because this worker had no papers.
same response was shown when two Indonesian migrant workers
received prison terms and lashes on Feb. 1, 2005 for criminal
acts. This attitude goes against Law No.37/1999 on foreign
relations that gives a mandate to the government - in
this case Indonesian diplomatic missions abroad - to provide
legal aid to Indonesian citizens involved in court cases
overseas, as victims as well as defendants.
terms of manpower management, the government has also
failed to prevent the massive growth in undocumented labor
migration. This problem is very much rooted in the bureaucratic
red tape and corruption involved for Indonesian migrant
workers to obtain necessary documents to legally work
corruption imposes very high cost burdens upon migrant
workers through the imposition of arbitrary fees and wage
deductions. For this reason, many if not most migrant
workers choose to avoid these high costs and depart for
overseas without documents. Law No.39/2004 on overseas
placement and protection of Indonesian migrant workers
has not made a significant impact on labor placement management.
the demand side, the exodus of migrant workers without
papers to Malaysia cannot be stemmed as long as Malaysian
companies continue to exploit their presence in order
to maximize profits. By recruiting and employing undocumented
migrant workers, these companies do not have to pay the
levies that are required for properly documented migrant
workers, and are also free to pay substandard wages because
there is no obligation for them to enter into or abide
by work contracts. The Indonesian government has never
earnestly urged Malaysia to deal with these demand-side
irregularities and to punish the Malaysian firms involved.
three extensions to the amnesty - originally until Nov.
1, 2004, then extended to Nov. 15, 2004, further to Dec.
31, 2004 and again to Jan. 31, 2005 because of the tsunami
disaster - should be understood not as Malaysian government's
"benevolence" but rather as the outcome of lobbying
by Malaysian business who feared mass departure of workers.
undocumented migrant workers serve the construction and
estate sectors, and losing so many of their workers so
quickly would have caused a major setback in plantation
production - Malaysia's major commodities and also disrupt
Malaysia's infrastructure development projects.
above factors should have been used by the Indonesian
government as the basis of an analysis to find a solution
to the crisis confronting Indonesian migrant workers in
Malaysia. Thus for the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia
have assumed that deportation is the only way to settle
the issue of undocumented migrant workers.
its realisation, however, deportation leaves many issues
unresolved. Instead, every time a deportation takes place,
tension increases in Indonesia-Malaysia diplomatic relations.
There is also great potential for violence and human rights
violations, especially when civilian vigilante groups
are mobilised. Massive accumulations of deportees at transit
points also leads to many serious problems, as was the
case in Nunukan, and comprehensive deportation management
must be adopted.
solution to deal with the problem of undocumented migrant
workers is legalisation. This means sorting out these
workers' status problems by legalising and handling their
immigration documents and working contracts in Malaysia,
without sending them back to Indonesia. Such a solution
was chosen by the Korean government in 2003 to deal with
a similar problem of illegal migrant workers in that country.
By legalising its problematic migrant workers without
sending them home, Korea saved itself from a scarcity
of labor upon which its industrial policy depends, and
at the same time systematically eliminated the illegal
recruitment of migrant workers.
the case of such migrant workers in Malaysia, legalisation
of their status could very much be a win-win solution.
For the Malaysian government it saves millions of Malaysian
ringgit that would otherwise be spent on raids and RELA
mobilisation. Malaysian companies also make profits by
avoiding a crisis of labor scarcity. For the Indonesian
government this option saves costs that would otherwise
go in anticipating massive numbers of deportees. For migrant
workers, legalisation enables them to obtain proper immigration
papers and get back to work with no more fear of raids.
Migrant CARE, Indonesian Association for Sovereign Migrant