Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Plan to confine migrant workers slammed

Plan to confine migrant workers slammed
Baradan Kuppusamy
Mar 2, 07 12:49pm

A plan to confine some 2.8 million foreign workers to their ramshackle living quarters, on the grounds of curbing rising crime, has caused uproar with critics slamming it as modern day slavery.

Foreign workers, opposition lawmakers, trade union officials and human rights activists have come together to denounce the plan, to be tabled in parliament in March, as indecent discrimination against vulnerable migrant workers and a violation of international labour rules and codes.

‘’The plan discriminates and promotes prejudice against migrant workers…it is unbelievable," said Irene Fernandez, executive director of ‘Tenaganita’, an NGO helping migrant workers. ‘’These measures are against international labour rules and codes.’’

The measures are said to be part of a major shift in ‘managing’ foreign workers from the human resources ministry to the home affairs ministry which, some critics say, automatically categorises migrant workers as a security problem.

Also, under the proposed legislation many functions of the human resources, tourism and health ministries will come under home affairs that oversees police, international security and the People’s Volunteer Corps or ‘Rela’ that is now gunning for some 800,000 undocumented migrant workers in the country.

Under the plan, the workers, mostly employed in the construction, manufacturing and plantation sectors, will be confined to their ramshackle quarters called ‘kongsi’ that are made of zinc and plywood and located inside or near their workplaces. The proposed rule will apply even on their days off.

Off-duty workers usually head for the cinemas, shopping complexes or beer parlours. Others hang out together in large groups at town centres. But if the new rule is passed, it will see them confined to their quarters unless they have express permission from employers to leave their workplaces.

Xenophobic prejudice

Employers are also required to keep a logbook detailing the daily movements of their foreign employees for inspection by police. "This way we can keep track of the workers and arrest them if they are involved in crime," said Inspector General of the Police Musa Hassan.

While police statistics reveal that serious crime in Malaysia climbed 40 percent in 2006 over the previous year, only two percent of it was attributable to foreign workers. However, the media, the public and lawmakers frequently blame foreign workers, who account for 12 percent of the total workforce of 12 million, for the spike in crime rates.

The bulk of the blame falls on Indonesians who form 65 percent of the foreign workforce, followed by Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Indians and Vietnamese. Police estimate that an additional 700,000, mostly Indonesians, work in this country without valid documents.

The new measures came under heavy criticism with Amnesty International (AI), Malaysia, saying migrant workers, like ordinary people, are entitled to fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in the country’s 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 violation and a form of punishment," he said, adding 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.

AI warned that the use of migrants as scapegoats for criminal acts will increase racial and xenophobic prejudice against the migrant community in Malaysia.

The Washington-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also condemned the government’s plan to, what it said, "virtually lock up workers." In a statement, the rights group said the resulting isolation would also put migrant workers at risk of other abuses.

''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," she said.

A form of slavery

Even the semi-official New Straits Times daily voiced apprehension, saying it was questionable whether controlling the movement of foreign workers would "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 Feb 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," the daily said.

Critics said existing rules already severely restrict migrant workers. They are barred from marrying local women, opening bank accounts, changing jobs or free travel.

''They are constantly stopped, questioned and arrested even when they have valid documents,’’ said Fernandez.

Foreign workers too have expressed shock at the open discrimination.

"This is a form of slavery," said Ahmed Badulla, 27, an iron foundry worker from Pakistan. "We are so busy working day and night to sent money home. How can we commit crime?"

''This country is very rich and there are lots of jobs but there is a lot of discrimination too,’’ said his compatriot Tajul Mohideen. - IPS

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