In Sudden Policy Reversal, Malaysia Announces Freeze on Foreign Workers

Haireez Azeem Azizi and Kamran Reza Chowdhury
2016.02.19
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160219-BD-migrant-620 A rescued migrant from Bangladesh watches over another migrant receiving medical attention in Kuala Langsa, Indonesia, after being rescued off a human trafficking boat, May 17, 2015.
AFP

A day after Malaysia inked a bilateral memorandum for taking in 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers, the deputy prime minister Friday announced a moratorium on all new arrivals of migrants from Bangladesh and other countries.

“Today I want to announce that the government has decided to suspend the intake of all foreign workers, including from the source countries, including Bangladesh,” Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters after meeting with army personnel in Sarawak state.

“And we call on all employers to hire local workers as their employees,” he added.

The moratorium would last while the government reviewed a program for collecting levies for foreign workers, the Star Online quoted Zahid as saying.

He did not talk about a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between Malaysia and Bangladesh in Dhaka on Thursday. Bangladeshi officials declined to release copies of the document, but said Thursday’s memorandum stipulated that Kuala Lumpur would take in 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers over a three-year period.

“What Malaysia has done is beyond diplomatic norms and decency. One minister came and signed the MoU, while another minister declares freezing of the agreement in less than 24 hours,” Saiful Haque, chairman of the WARBE Development Foundation, a Bangladeshi NGO that works in migration and gives a voice to migrant workers, told BenarNews on Friday.

Malaysian officials did not immediately say why the government was putting a freeze on incoming migrants especially after having just signed the memorandum with Bangladesh.

In Dhaka, a top government official said Bangladesh had yet to be notified about the new moratorium.

“We have come to know about the freeze of the memo from the media. But unless the Malaysian government informs us officially, we will assume that the agreement stands valid,” Jabed Ahmed, additional secretary at the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment, told BenarNews.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian minister who signed the MoU denied that his government had agreed to take in 1.5 million Bangladeshi migrants.

“The perception that 1.5 million‎ workers will be brought in from Bangladesh to work in Malaysia is not true,” Malaysian Human Resources Minister Richard Riot Anak Jaem told a news conference in Putrajaya on Friday, the Star reported.

“The figure is, in fact, the number of Bangladeshis registered with its ministry of expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment for the purpose of seeking employment in foreign countries, including Malaysia,” he added.

Domestic pressure on Malaysia’s government

Friday’s announcement by Zahid came amid growing criticism on social media and in Malaysian labor circles toward the bilateral plan to bring in 1.5 million Bangladeshis, who would be a source of cheap labor.

Jabed Ahmed, the Bangladeshi official, said the MoU stipulated that each migrant worker would be paid a maximum of 900 ringgit (U.S. $213; 16,753 takas) in monthly wages.

Malaysia’s largest union, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), was among local groups that criticized the plan. On Thursday the MTUC sent a memo to the government in which it objected to it.

“The country does not have to rely on labor resources from foreign countries. This situation will certainly harm the economy and have an adverse impact on the local population,” the MTUC said in its memorandum, according to the state-run Bernama news agency.

And on the same day that Malaysia signed the MoU in Dhaka, Prime Minister Najib Razak issued a statement from San Francisco in which he acknowledged domestic concerns about the plan.

“I think we need to make sure that whatever move we make will fulfil the needs of the economy. Some sectors of the economy need workers, like the plantation industry,” Bernama quoted Najib as saying.

‘Very hard and dangerous’

The bilateral MoU would have offered a legal track for Bangladeshi workers to migrate to Malaysia in search of employment opportunities.

Such an avenue has been closed to Bangladeshis since 2009. In 2013, Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur signed deal for the Malaysian recruitment of 500,000 low-wage workers. Around 1.4 million Bangladeshis registered online for the program, but the process went nowhere.

As a result, Bangladeshi migrants have since resorted to paying human trafficking syndicates large sums of money to smuggle them into the Southeast Asian country.

Haque, of the WARBE Development Foundation, criticized the latest MoU for its lack of transparency.

“Neither Bangladesh nor Malaysia has made the MoU public,” Haque told BenarNews.

“This is suspicious; people want to how much money the workers will have to pay, what will be their  wage, whether there will be any health safety clause and other [questions],” he added.

Bangladeshi workers are willing to take on so-called 3-D jobs – those that are dirty, dangerous and difficult – such as jobs on palm oil and rubber plantations, he said.

“Working on palm plantations is very hard and dangerous. Snakes and dangerous insects kill many people. So, I have opted for a cleaning job,” Md. Zahir, a Bangladeshi worker employed by a company in Malaysia’s Johor state, told BenarNews by phone.

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