KUALA LUMPUR - Foreign workers, mostly from Indonesia, now make up just over 10%
of Malaysia's workforce of 14 million people, both in the formal and informal
sectors, according to the latest government statistics.
A recent series
of incidents has highlighted the shocking conditions in which these laborers
toil and exposed the lengths to which the Malaysian government will go to keep
the press quiet on the plight of immigrants in the country.
Fernandez , a prominent Malaysian human-rights activist and long-time champion
of exploited foreign workers, has come under severe attacks from government
ministers and employers for an interview she gave a Jakarta newspaper in which
she condemned poor governance and alleged that migrant workers felt "unsafe" in
In the April 30 interview, Fernandez, president of Tenaganita
(Women's Force) and winner of the Right Livelihood Award in 2005, said that
apart from low wages and rampant exploitation, migrant workers were also
subjected to unfair labor practices and often stopped and harassed by uniformed
personnel, in a country that has no legal framework to protect, regulate or
ensure the safety of immigrants.
Immigrants' housing, wages and welfare
were left to market forces, she told the English-language Jakarta Post, causing
a chaotic situation that enabled rampant exploitation of vulnerable workers.
The interview came on the heels of rising anger in Indonesia against the
reports of exploitation of its nationals in Malaysia.
The wave of
immigration, which began in Malaysia in the 1990s, coincided with a construction
and commodities boom that saw vast swathes of the jungle-cloaked country
transformed into oil palm plantations.
As countless skyscrapers popped
up and rapid urbanization made the construction sector hungry for cheap labor,
Indonesians were lured into the country en masse, quickly growing to be the
biggest group of foreign workers, numbering nearly two million last year.
Others - Indians, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Vietnamese and Africans -
followed to work on plantations and in the construction, manufacturing and
service sectors whose rapid expansion left the top 10% of Malaysia's 28 million
people, along with foreign investors,
The middle class also expanded but the bottom 60% of
the country suffered, competing ferociously for the manufacturing sector's four
According to the Malaysian Investment and Development
Authority (MIDA), a government agency, from 2011 the government expanded foreign
employment to include 11 sub-sectors such as restaurant jobs, cleaning
services, cargo handling, launderette services, golf club caddies, barbers
and so forth.
As high demand pushed wages down, the "3-D" jobs - dirty,
dangerous and demeaning employment
that most Malaysians no longer want to do - became almost exclusively associated
with Indonesian immigrants.
To counter Fernandez's
allegations now circling around Jakarta, the mainstream media in Malaysia is
running daily stories of happily employed Indonesian workers with no complaints
about the system.
The interview is seen as a "betrayal of Malaysia" by
Fernandez and has sparked vociferous calls for action against her.
has been accused of everything from unpatriotic behavior to being a traitor and
has been held responsible for spoiling an otherwise "excellent" relationship
between the two countries.
Under pressure from the government, the
Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission
and the police announced this week that Fernandez was being investigated for
"sedition", a catch-all law that many civil-rights activists have described as
"archaic" and used against human-rights defenders.
Fernandez, who for
the past two decades has been virtually the lone voice in the country decrying
the plight of foreign workers, said she was unfazed by the attacks.
will not be cowed. I will continue to speak up for voiceless migrants and the
oppressed poor people of Malaysia," she told Inter Press Service (IPS).
"I have no regrets. I want to highlight the sorry plight of thousands of
migrant workers," she said, adding that she stood by everything she said in the
Jakarta Post interview.
This is Fernandez's second run-in with the law.
In 1996, she was charged with publishing false news to all the foreign missions
in the capital about the deplorable living and working conditions of immigrants
in detention centers.
After a marathon trial that lasted 13 years, the
court acquitted her.
She was given the Right Livelihood Award for her
"outstanding and courageous work to stop violence against women and abuses of
migrant and poor workers".
Fernandez has a long history of activism -
she organized the first textile workers union, was instrumental in setting up
trade unions in the country's free-trade zones and focused on development of
women leaders in the labor movement.
Tenaganita aims to secure the
rights of foreign workers who, according to a government census in December
2011, number nearly 3 million, documented and undocumented.
hysterical reaction against Fernandez for speaking the truth was typical of the
government, said Arulchelvam Subramaniam, the secretary-general of the Parti
Sosialis Malaysia (PSM).
"The country has a first-world infrastructure
and a booming economy but remains immature intellectually," he said. "At a
signal, everybody jumped on the bandwagon and lashed out at her [Fernandez],
including the mainstream media," in the process forgetting the real issues
involved such as the exploitation of workers, low wages and corruption in the
According to Subramaniam Sathasivam, the Human Resources
minister, all labor laws are equally applicable to locals as well as foreign
workers. "We are fair in that," he told IPS.
But the laws are weak and
easily surmounted by employers, while law enforcement and persecution of
offenders is weak and ineffective. Some laws look good on paper but are
impractical to implement.
While seeking to deflect criticism on its
handling of foreign workers, the government is now toying with a Foreign Workers
Act, which would regulate immigrants' working and living conditions.