Domestic Crime, Foreign Workers, Regional Ties

Updated On: Feb 23, 2007

There is a sense in Malaysia that the rising level of crime is committed by foreigners, and in particular, migrant workers.

This feeling seems to be borne out in the statistics. The New Straits Times estimated that four out of 10 prison inmates in Malaysia are foreigners.

To tackle this perceived problem, the Malaysian government is currently considering two proposals to tackle the issue. The first is to collect thumbprints of employers of foreign workers. Home Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Radzi Sheik Ahmad cited the high number of cases of workers stranded on arrival in Malaysia due to the failure of employers to turn up to fetch them.

The proposal has been expectedly met with resistance from employers. Three out of four employers interviewed said that it would be unfair to push responsibility of the workers on them. Instead, the employers argued that the workers should be held responsible for their own action.

The Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan also proposed that the movement of workers outside should be controlled.  Under this proposal, foreign workers would be confined to their workplaces or living quarters.

Like the first proposal, this proposal has its detractors. The Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) President Syed Shahir Syed Mohamud has opposed this proposal, pointing out that foreign workers must receive equal treatment as locals unless it could be proven statistically that crimes in Malaysia are mainly committed by non-citizens.

A senior researcher from Human Rights Watch, Nisha Varia argued that, “Instead of improving the situation, Malaysia’s proposed foreign worker bill will make it dramatically worse.” Many migrant workers, especially domestic workers already face restrictions on their movements and communications. The proposal might lead to higher risks of workers abuse and exploitation.

This issue of migrant worker is not merely a simple domestic issue. Instead, given that the majority of the migrant workers in Malaysia are from Indonesia, there are political implications if the issue is not handled sensitively. For instance, the issue of Malaysia’s plan to draft a new law on migrant workers was one of the questions raised by the Indonesian media to Malaysia Prime Minster Badawi. Badawi was in Jakarta to receive an Indonesian award for heads of state.

Malaysia and Indonesia have already signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in May 2006 to regulate migration of domestic workers. Under this MOU, both sides agreed to introduce standard contracts and prohibit the deduction of fees borne by the employers from the employees’ pay. However, it allowed employers to keep the workers’ passports, prohibit the workers from marrying and did not specify clear standards in terms of minimum wage, weekly day off or any monitoring mechanism for labour agencies.

It is unclear as to whether both proposals might help reduce crimes committed by foreign workers. Instead, if the proposals were to lead to greater exploitation and abuse of Indonesian workers, the fall-out on Malaysia-Indonesia relations would be clear indeed. 

In another move also concerning foreign workers woes that smacks of double standard, the Malaysian government has announced that it would be appointing labour attaches to countries to deal with the problem of Malaysian workers being cheated, stranded and abused abroad.  Citing an example, Human Resources Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Fong Chan Onn said that the ministry had received hundreds of complaints from Malaysians who had been cheated in Singapore. 

If approved by the Malaysian cabinet, labour attaches would be sent to Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates.  The attaches would also help educate locals in foreign countries on the Malaysian labour scenario, laws and the judicial process.  (22 February 2007)


Employers Against Thumbprint Move (New Straits Times, 21 February 2007)

Watching the Workers (New Straits Times, 21 February 2007)

Indonesia, Malaysia: Overhaul Labour Agreement on Domestic Workers (Reuters, 21 February 2007)

We Must Eradicate Muslim Poverty: Badawi (Jakarta Post, 21 February 2007)

NGOS: It Won’t Work (The Malay Mail, 21 February 2007)

Labour Attaches to Solve Workers’Woes (New Straits Times, 20 February 2007)

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