Why there are so many undocumented migrant workers — Joseph Paul

MAY 5 — In the wake of the recent raid on migrant workers in the Masjid India area, the Immigration Department seems serious about dealing with the situation of undocumented migrant workers (MW) in the country. It has meticulously identified those who are undocumented and taken them to detention centres where they would be cared for until they can be sent back to their home countries. Since that is not likely to happen in the near future, because of the travel restriction, we would like to suggest that this period be used to identify the root causes of “undocumentedness” which is a problem that the department has been unable to resolve over the last 20 years at least. Unless the root causes are clearly identified and addressed in a transparent manner, the current actions will be yet another exercise in futility.

Popular wisdom has it that the estimated three million or more undocumented MW who are in Malaysia had surreptitiously sneaked into the country or deliberately  overstayed their visa and refused to return home. While this vies is plausible, it surely cannot account for the three milllion or more undocumented MW who are here currently. In the case of those who come from countries which have a common border with Malaysia, it is possible and indeed true that many would have sneaked into Malaysia through the many “jalan tikus” which migrant workers, agents, traffickers and others in the MW business  (except the immigration authorities) seem to be aware of. However, there are also thousands of others who came by air, landing at official airports like KLIA (not some remote landing strips). Did these persons also sneak through the immigration checkpoints?

There are a number of other reasons why a MW is undocumented:

1. There are thousands of persons brought in by employment agents and bogus employers for a fat fee and then left stranded without jobs. These workers would have come with valid calling visas issued by the Immigration Department (with or without the involvement of the Human Resources Ministry) for non-existent jobs. And now they have joined the ranks of the undocumented MW. Shouldn’t we ask how were these visas issued and who was responsible for it?

2. There are hundreds of thousands of undocumented MW  who are victims of “Rehiring programmes” with names such 6P, 3P, 3P+1 during which the MWs lost thousands of their hard earned or borrowed money (usually between RM4,000 and RM7,000) and lost their passports to boot. The beneficiaries of these programmes are usually officially appointed agencies and their subagents. A substantial amount of the monies paid by the MWs has also gone to government coffers. When the MWs make police reports against the agents, they are almost always told that it is a commercial crime which the victims have to pursue through civil claims. It is difficult to believe that the immigration authorities are unaware of the cheating that has been going on by their official agents, or at least, through misusing the name of the Immigration Department. This criminal neglect on the part of the authorities and/or their officers, to take any action, while benefitting from these nefarious activities has contributed to the growth in the numbers of undocumented MWs. Can we now say with a straight face and a clear conscience that they are criminals and should be dealt with accordingly?

3. There is another group of migrant workers who had been documented in the first place but became undocumented because of the failure of their employers to renew their work permits, often after having collected the levy and associated costs from the workers. It must be borne in mind that the worker does not have any control over whether or not his/her work permit is renewed; it is entirely in the hands of the employer. It is surprising that the Immigration Department has not been able to keep track of employers who have not renewed the work permits of their employees or called to account for them.

4. There are also migrant workers who were not paid their wages, or subjected to verbal and physical abuse or other forms of labour rights violations. They would have left their employers to find other sources of income and thereby become undocumented. It can be argued, correctly, that these workers should have filed their complaints with the Labour Department, which some of them do, usually with assistance of NGOs. But by and large, the migrant DW is quite unaware of the avenues available for them to seek redress, and so they simply go elsewhere to earn a living. While it may not be a legally acceptable excuse, surely these are mitigating circumstances in their favour which would at least warrant an investigation by the Immigration authorites or Labour Department. These workers should also be paid their outstanding wages before they are sent back.

One can enumerate other reasons why a migrant worker is undocumented. In many cases it is through no fault of their own. Therefore it is only right and fair that the Immigration authorities make a detailed and objective analysis of how and why the undocumented MW who are now in their care, became undocumented. In the interests of transparancy and credibility the authorities should collaborate with NGOs and human rights bodies such as Suhakam to conduct this study on “undocumentedness” and be prepared to make public the findings. Unless a root cause analysis of the problem is carried out and corrective and preventative action is taken, it would be foolhardy to expect any useful outcome from detaining these undocumented MWs.

This is not the first time that such operations have been carried out to “get rid” of undocumented MWs, all of which, without exception have been complete failures. It was only as recently as July 2018 that a deputy home minister was reported to have boldly claimed that the country will be “rid” of the problem within a month. Let us learn from the mistakes of our own history.

* Joseph Paul is a member of Tenaganita, a human rights organisation and is passionately critical of abuses of power, injustice and plain folly by those in authority.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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