Planned crackdown on migrants can lead to abuse, logistics nightmare, group warns

Charles called for an overhaul of the migrant labour management system, citing the widespread exploitation of migrant workers by unscrupulous and abusive employers. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
Charles called for an overhaul of the migrant labour management system, citing the widespread exploitation of migrant workers by unscrupulous and abusive employers. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, June 7 — A rights group has urged the government to rethink its plan to launch a massive crackdown on undocumented migrant workers, warning of potential abuse by enforcement agents and horrid conditions that come with mass detention.

Tenaganita said past mass scale arrests have consistently failed to produce any beneficial results, but instead led to human rights violations that were often brutal and and inhumane.

It claimed these infringements are often perpetrated by “venal” enforcement personnel and “unethical agents.”

“Tenaganita would point out, so as to experience has shown, that ‘large scale enforcement operations (a euphemism for brutal, inhumane arrests and detention)’ have consistently failed to produce any beneficial results, except for venal enforcement personnel and unethical agents,” the NGO said in a statement.

It further noted that if the number of undocumented migrant workers is anywhere close to the conservative estimate of five million, the transportation and housing of the detained persons would result in logistical nightmares, setting the stage for more abuses, corruption and inefficiencies.

“Already, detention centres are overcrowded, intolerable, unhealthy and the subject of many horror stories of abuse and corruption from ex-detainees,” the group’s executive director Glorene A Das said.

“The planned crackdown will undoubtedly further aggravate the situation, and it is important that careful planning is done before such operations are carried out on a large scale.”

Earlier this week Home Affairs Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said the authorities will begin a nationwide crackdown on undocumented migrant workers after the government terminate its rehiring programme at month-end.

The policy is part of the Pakatan Harapan administration’s effort to reduce foreign worker hiring and reform the domestic labour market, but critics are sceptical over how this new government plans to tackle the issue.

One of them, government backbencher and MP for Klang, Charles Santiago, said the migrant labour management system should be overhauled first, citing the widespread exploitation of migrant workers by unscrupulous and abusive employers.

He claimed local and foreign recruitment companies are typically cronies linked to politicians from the defeated ruling party, Umno, most of which obtained lucrative contracts through alleged corruption.

There are an estimated five million undocumented migrant workers in the country, most of whom came legally but are on the run because companies would not rehire them.

Many were also forced to abscond due to serious abuse by employers, a point Santiago made as he urged Muhyiddin to rethink the planned crackdown.

Tenaganita said it echoed the Klang MP’s views, but it also argued against the policy to repatriate migrant workers en masse, saying their sudden removal from the labor market could cause major disruptions in many crucial sectors of the economy.

“That is exactly what happened in 2017, and on earlier occasions, when a similar major crackdown / raid on undocumented migrant workers was implemented,” it said.

“For example the construction industry came to a virtual halt and oil palm plantations incurred losses of millions of ringgit when undocumented migrant workers were detained and deported on a large scale.”