By Baradan Kuppusamy
LUMPUR, Oct 28 (IPS) - As recession looms large on the horizon, migrant
workers like 27-year-old Kumar Palanisamy from Chennai in India are the
first on the chopping block.
"My employer told me I have a
job up to December...after that nobody knows," said Kumar who works as
a production operator with a furniture manufacturer exporting to the
United States and China.
"I don’t want to lose my job or get deported," he said, eyes
brimming with tears. "I have a family to support and a Rs 40,000 (800
US dollars) debt to settle."
It is a time of great unease for Malaysia’s estimated 3.5 million legal
and illegal, low-paid foreign workers who face a dreadful future in an
unfriendly country as a global financial meltdown begins to take
It does not help that neighbouring Singapore, already in recession, is
expected to retrench workers and some 300,000 Malaysians working there
have suddenly become vulnerable.
The government has already formed a special task force that
will find ways to accommodate retrenched Malaysians returning not only
from Singapore but also Taiwan, Japan and the Middle East.
"The foreign workers are at the lowest rungs of the scale and
already vulnerable. It is now a question of how soon recession will hit
the country," labour leader Siva Nathan told IPS. "When that happens,
the migrant workers will be the first to go," he said.
Already there are signs of an official toughening of the
attitudes against migrant workers, 2.2 million of whom are do*****ented
while the rest are considered "illegal immigrants."
Malaysia’s notorious ‘RELA’, an untrained and voluntary
uniformed body, is already stepping up raids across the country to
arrest undo*****ented workers and deport them.
Immigration authorities have issued warnings that Malaysians
found harbouring or renting premises to "illegal immigrants" would be
fined or jailed, a move that is likely to unload hundreds and thousands
of undo*****ented migrant workers now living in "rabbit warren’’ housing
in shanty towns.
"They would be homeless and out in the open, and easily rounded up,"
said a senior RELA officer on condition of anonymity. "We are
sympathetic, but we have received our orders…the rule now is jobs are
first for locals. We have to protect ourselves now as mass layoffs are
possible with the world economy taking such a big hit."
Malaysia’s deputy prime minister Najib Razak, who is set to
take over as prime minister from Abdullah Badawi in March 2009, is
already gearing the government to tighten belts and save as many jobs
as possible for the locals.
Razak said while the economy is likely to grow by five percent
in 2008, growth in 2009 is expected to nosedive as the economies of
U.S., Europe and East Asia contract or even go into recession.
He told parliament, last week, that the government was taking
steps to reduce the number of foreign workers by 400,000 a year from
now until 2010.
Almost 26 percent of Malaysia’s trade is with the U.S. and a key area
is electronics where order books are beginning to shrink, manufacturers
External demand for electrical and electronic goods in
particular will weaken significantly in 2009 when Malaysia's key export
markets, the U.S. and Europe, are predicted to be in recession, finance
ministry officials said.
A cutback in production by giants Sony and Samsung means a
drop in electronic chip production and eventual closure of plants and
loss of jobs.
"There is all round fear among the 13 million-strong labour
force,’’ said Irene Fernandez, executive director of TENAGANITA, a
rights NGO helping to protect migrant workers from exploitation.
"However, migrant workers are the most vulnerable and they live and
work in a society very unfriendly to foreigners," she told IPS.
"The laws, rules, regulations and practices and official
attitudes are all unfriendly," she said. "If the economy woes worsen
the environment can turn hostile.’’
Malaysia’s trade unions, while expressing sympathy for migrant workers,
are moving in fast to protect jobs for local workers and those
returning home after losing their jobs overseas.
"It is unfortunate but we have to defend our jobs, our rice
bowls," said Sinnapan Arumugam, a worksite supervisor and union leader
in a manufacturing factory in Bayan Lepas industrial hub in northern
"This is the case under the law…locals come first," he told
IPS referring to Malaysian labour laws that state that in the event of
retrenchment local workers are the last to be axed.
Annually migrant workers -- mostly in the plantations,
manufacturing, construction and service sectors -- remit home an
estimated RM18 billion (five billion US dollars) to their families
across Asia, keeping them in relative comfort.
The majority of the migrant workers are from neighbouring
Indonesia while the rest come from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal and
most recently from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. They are driven to
migrate by poverty in their home countries.
The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers estimated that the
"casual workers" or illegal migrants in local parlance are the most
vulnerable in the impending slowdown and recession.
"There has been a huge increase in foreign casual workers in
recent years and they would be the most affected,’’ federation
president Yong Poh Kan told local newspapers.
Labour experts and rights activists say it is important for the
authorities to plan how to handle the crisis in an intelligent and
humanitarian manner to ensure that foreign workers are not just bundled
into ships and deported.
"Without the foreign labour we would not have been able to
develop so rapidly," said Fernandez. "We cannot just use and discard
them as we like."
"There is an urgent need to develop a comprehensive policy
that is respectful and humanitarian with payment of adequate
retrenchment and other benefits," she added.