03/08/2005, 00.00
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Malaysia is exploiting foreign workers, says Catholic activist


Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – Joachim F. Xavier is a Catholic human rights activist who is concerned about how undocumented foreign workers are treated in Malaysian society. In his view, few Malaysian have been truly interested in immigrants' actual conditions. "For us," he said, "they have always been nothing more than cheap labour."

This cri de coeur comes a week after Malaysia began rounding up illegal immigrants—mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines—who failed to leave the country after the four month grace period announced by the government came to an end.

Unofficial estimates put the number of migrants who left for home at 450,000; however, this leaves some 400,000 still in the country. They now can be hunted by the 300,000 armed civilian vigilantes to whom the government in Kuala Lumpur has delegated authority to track and expel unwanted foreigners.

Not everyone is happy about the expulsions. Malaysian businessmen complain that they lost valuable manpower, especially in the farming and construction sectors.

Traditionally, foreigners work in low-paying jobs shunned by locals. Government data show that Indonesians represented 90 per cent of all construction workers and 60 per cent of farm workers.

For Mr Xavier, who sits on the Development Board of the diocese of Penang—the Catholic agency most actively involved in the issue—, the reason why Malaysia is uninterested in the real situation of foreign workers even though they generate wealth for the country, is because "we were too concerned about our own selfish wants and desires" he said. "It was all about our economy, our businesses, our wealth, our health and our society".

He laments that "[i]n many ways Malaysia has turned a blind eye to all the atrocities the workers have been enduring here as a result of a biased administration of the law that does not protect the workers but instead victimises them" .

For the Catholic activist, migrants pay bribes to the police just to stay in the country even when they have valid papers.

Many employers are corrupt as well. Labour laws are not respected, because employers pay off officials charged with enforcing them. An illegal labour market has emerged.

For him, it is high time that the law, which entails fines of 50,000 ringgit (€ 10,000, US$ 13,000) and jail sentences of up to 12 years for hiring illegal workers, be enforced. (LF)

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