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Malaysia Starts Program to Legalize Some Undocumented Foreign Migrants

Hadi Azmi and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
2020-11-16
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Undocumented migrants wait in line to submit their application for participation in Malaysia’s amnesty program at the Immigration Department’s headquarters in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Dec. 27, 2019.
Undocumented migrants wait in line to submit their application for participation in Malaysia’s amnesty program at the Immigration Department’s headquarters in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Dec. 27, 2019.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Malaysia on Monday opened a six-and-a half month window in which undocumented migrants can apply to the government, through employers, to stay in the country and work legally in sectors deemed “difficult, dangerous or dirty.”

A leading Malaysian human rights group, however, urged migrant workers not to pay anyone for the legalization program until the government released more information about it.

“Employers need to present an application letter attached with company background and information on the foreign laborer(s) that they are requesting to be able to join this Workforce Recalibration Program,” Immigration Department chief Khairul Dzaimee Daud said in a statement Friday, a day after the home minister announced plans for the program.

“The Malaysian Immigration Department (JIM) would like to inform all employers interested in participating in this program to send their applications via email … starting Nov. 16, 2020.”

Only employers from four sectors – manufacturing, construction, agricultural, and plantations – are eligible to apply, Daud said.

Another plan, for undocumented workers to apply to return to their home country, also began Monday and will run for six and a half months as well.

In October, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said that the palm oil and rubber plantations were facing a manpower shortage after the government closed Malaysia’s borders to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan to legalize workers participating in the four specified sectors “is important for the recovery of all sectors of the economy shaken by the negative impacts of COVID-19,” said a statement by the Home Ministry on Thursday.

The World Bank estimated that between1.23 to 1.46 million undocumented migrants worked in Malaysia in 2017, while Reuters news agency said that an additional two million people were registered foreign workers.

The country’s palm oil plantations, especially, rely on foreign labor. Documented foreigners make up 80-85 percent of the plantation workforce, or 265,000 people, according to data from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board.

Workers can stay in Malaysia while employers apply for their legalization, the minister’s statement last week said. The program also applies to detained foreign workers.

In January, Malaysian immigration detained more than 400 foreigners after the five-month program that allowed them to turn themselves in ended on Dec. 31. In May, it detained hundreds more, following pandemic lockdown raids.

The immigration chief had said last week that employers blacklisted for immigration-related offenses would not be allowed to participate in the plan to regularize some workers.

The Human Resources Ministry, the Home Ministry and the Department of Labor for Peninsular Malaysia would work together on deciding whether to approve an application after the Immigration Department verifies them, he said.

Employers need to apply through the department’s Integrated Foreign Workers Management System (ePPAx), which would process the request within seven days, according to information on its website.

On ePPAx, applicants’ eligibility is measured using several yardsticks, including the value and timeframe of the project an employer is applying to use a migrant worker for. For plantation employers, the department will take into consideration the type of crop and acreage as well as current number of local and foreign workers already hired by the employers.

‘Unanswered questions’

Neither the home ministry nor the Immigration Department said how long workers could stay once they were regularized. They also didn’t say how much employers need to pay for each application, or whether there is a fine to be deposited for each worker applied for.

Whether undocumented workers who choose to return need to pay a penalty or an application fee was not divulged either.

According to the Back for Good (B4G) program announced in July 2019, illegals workers could be repatriated voluntarily without facing legal action, provided they presented a ticket for the return trip and paid a fine of 700 ringgit (U.S. $170) each.

Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin only said on Thursday that the government expected to collect about 90 million ringgit ($27.9 million) “through compounds and other payments” imposed on the migrants and employers.

On Monday, BenarNews contacted officials at the Immigration Department for all these details. But they said no particulars would be given at this time other than what was mentioned in Daud’s Friday statement.

The lack of these details troubles rights group Tenaganita.

“We still have many unanswered questions about the new legalization (recalibration) program for undocumented migrant workers. Do not rush to pay anyone. Please wait until we have official and verified information,” said Tenaganita, in a series of posters it uploaded on its social media accounts Friday.

The posters were produced in multiple languages including in Nepali, Bengali, Tagalog, Indonesian and English.

Glorene A. Das, executive director of Tenaganita, said Monday that the program to regularize some foreign workers appears beneficial at first glance, but could lead to exploitation of migrants in many under-regulated industries.

In September, the United States announced an immediate ban on imports of palm oil and related products from Malaysian company FGV Holdings Berhad, saying a year-long investigation had uncovered signs of forced labor in the production process.

“We simply cannot have another narrative of human and labor rights violations later with these industries,” Das told BenarNews, saying the government shouldn’t use the fact they legalized workers as an excuse to not take responsibility for rights violations.

“Therefore, it is crucial for the government to hold consultations with the employers, representatives of migrants workers, diplomatic missions and civil society organizations which work with migrant workers at the grassroots level, on how best to develop and implement the ‘legalization” program.’”

Das added that the legalization of the undocumented workers plan should not be used just to fill the government’s coffers.

“The consideration to ‘legalize’ undocumented migrant workers with one- or two-year work-permit calls for a firm commitment from the government to ensure that migrant workers are not used as an ATM (Automated Teller Machine) once more, Das said.

“This commitment should be backed by a transparent, well-thought out implementation plan to ensure that migrant workers who want to apply for the temporary work permits are able to do so without any hassle and at no cost to themselves.”

Hamzah had said week that said the Home and Human Resources ministries would engage with embassies and high commissions, as well as industry players, to inform employers and undocumented immigrants on what exactly the recalibration and repatriation plans entailed.

Labor shortage

The Malaysia Palm Oil Association said the move to regularize undocumented workers would help small plantation owners and other industries deal with the COVID-19 manpower shortages that have caused them to lose as much as 30 percent of potential profit since the pandemic began.

Officials at palm oil product manufacturer FGV Holdings Berhad did not immediately respond to a query from BenarNews.

Meanwhile, Sime Darby, another palm oil manufacturer, said it would need more time to respond to BenarNews's request for comments.

The two companies are among Malaysia’s largest palm oil and rubber plantation owners.

Mohammad Khorshed Alam Khastagir, deputy high commissioner at the Bangladesh Embassy in Malaysia, told BenarNews that the Malaysian initiative to legalize some undocumented workers of 15 countries, including Bangladesh, was a welcome one in this time of pandemic.

“Because undocumented workers are not ensured any rights, they are abused everywhere and have to work on very low wages just to survive. Through this opportunity, even if a few thousand Bangladeshis can become legal, their remittances will have a positive impact on Bangladesh’s economy,” Khastagir said.

Meanwhile, a senior official at the embassy who didn’t want to be named, said that of about 500,000 Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia, almost 300,000 are undocumented.

Suraya Ali, a human right activist, said the government’s program could be tweaked.

“The program by the government is good but it need to be refined to make sure that the workers and employers follow procedures,” the activist said.

Hamzah, the home minister, had said last week that after the June 30, 2021 deadline for applying for legalization, the Immigration Department will begin the implementation of its Holistic Enforcement Plan Against Illegal Immigrants.

Under this plan, employers who are found guilty of hiring foreigners without valid permits will be given the maximum penalty of 50,000 ringgit, or a 12-month prison sentence, or both, for each undocumented immigrant employed, Hamzah said.

Those employers found guilty of hiring more than five undocumented migrants will be punished with the “rattan,” which means they will be caned, he said.

The minister also said that he and human resources minister M. Saravanan would co-chair a special committee that will meet every three months to discuss whether to expand this legalization plan for undocumented immigrants to other sectors.

The first such meeting is scheduled for Dec. 3.

Jesmin Papri in Dhaka contributed to this report.

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