Malaysia allows illegal migrants find work as hardship fears persist

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Starting on Monday (Nov. 23), undocumented migrants in Malaysia who are willing to work in the country’s dirty, dangerous and difficult’ sectors will be given a chance to work, or choose to return to their home countries.

The government said the scheme aimed to revive Malaysia’s labour-reliant industries, including the huge palm oil sector, which have been grappling with a severe shortage of foreign labourers since COVID-19 closed the country’s borders.

However, labour rights groups said the government’s launched initiative did not do enough to protect victims of human trafficking.

Under the programme which will start on Monday until next June, undocumented migrants can sign up to work in construction, plantations, agriculture and manufacturing, or choose to return home.

The government said it expected to collect at least 90 million ringgit (US$22 million) in fines and other payments from migrants or their employers participating in the scheme, without saying what individual workers would be fined.

The plan is aimed at “reviving the economy that has been affected by COVID-19” and will not impact local employment opportunities, Malaysia’s Home Ministry said in a statement.

A ministry official said he could not comment further on the fines, while an immigration spokesman did not reply to a request for comment.

Migrant activists said the programme did not fully address the plight of undocumented migrants, many of whom are victims of trafficking and forced labour lured into the country by unscrupulous recruitment agents without the proper documents.

“It appears they are answering the call from some industries that want migrant workers – it’s not crafted with the interest of the workers in mind, that’s clear,” said Irene Xavier, co-founder of Sahabat Wanita Selangor, a local group assisting migrant workers.

“Workers will be very careful if they want to come forward,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, urging the government to ensure protections are in place for migrants who want to work, while scrapping fines for those who opt to return home.

Xavier also questioned why sectors such as domestic work, which hires tens of thousands of female migrants and where abuse is common, were excluded from the scheme.

Malaysia relies on some 2 million registered foreign labourers mainly from Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal in industries locals shun as dirty, dangerous and difficult. Authorities estimate many more are working without permits.

But abuses have been under the spotlight, including debt bondage among workers which the government vowed to end.

The U.S. State Department put the Southeast Asian country on its second-lowest ranking in its annual trafficking report. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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