02/23/2007, 00.00
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Migrant workers barred from leaving neighbourhood where they work

New draft bill by Malaysian government is designed to fight crime. Employers would be authorised to hold employees. There are fears the law would favour sexual or psychological abuse, especially amongst mostly Indonesian domestic workers.

Jakarta (AsiaNews/HRW) – Malaysia plans to adopt a law that bars migrant workers from leaving their place of work or neighbourhood, Human Rights Watch reports. The human rights organisation has slammed the piece of legislation and hopes Indonesia, the country of origin of most migrants, will intervene to stop it.

Approximately 2.5 million migrants work in Malaysia (at least 700,000 with no valid documents), the majority in plantations, construction and domestic service.

The new law that Home Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Radzi Sheikh Ahmad wants to introduce in March would prevent foreign migrant workers from leaving their place of work. Employers would be responsible for enforcing the law and liable for any breach. This would put workers at risk for abuses and exploitation of various kinds. But for the government it is justified as a way to fight crime.

Deputy Home Affairs Minister Tan Chai Ho said that Malaysia's rising crime rate can be partly blamed on the entry of foreigners with criminal backgrounds and foreigners with criminal records will be barred from working in the country.

In Malaysia there are approximately 300,000, mostly Indonesian, migrant domestic workers who work gruelling 16 to 18 hour days, seven days a week, and earn less than 25 US cents per hour.

These workers are excluded from key protections in Malaysia’s main labour laws and thousands of them have filed complaints for sexual and psychological abuse.

In Indonesia, labour agents often subject prospective workers to extortion, discriminatory hiring processes, and months-long confinement in overcrowded training centres.

 “It’s shocking that Malaysia is even considering a proposal that would give employers freedom to lock up workers,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher on women’s rights in Asia for Human Rights Watch.

Indonesia and Malaysia signed a Memorandum of Understanding in May 2006 to regulate migration of domestic workers. Measures included the introduction of a standard contract and protections against cutting workers’ salaries to repay fees borne by the employer. However, it allows employers to keep workers’ passports, prohibits workers from marrying, and fails to introduce clear standards on a minimum wage, a weekly day off, or monitoring mechanisms for labour agencies.  

“Migration benefits both countries tremendously—by providing important services to Malaysia and needed income to Indonesian workers,” said Varia. “But, despite a long history of large migration flows, Malaysia and Indonesia have lagged behind other countries in ensuring basic protections for migrant workers.”

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