As a retired worker and a veteran trade union activist, I am indeed gratified to hear that the government has finally decided to extend equal treatment to foreign workers. In a statement to the local media, Human Resources Minister Dr. Fong Chan Onn announced on 13 November that foreign workers employed in Malaysia would be treated equally in accordance with the provisions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention.
The ILO is one of the important wings of the United Nations. Its primary function is to safeguard the rights and dignity of the working people all over the world. Its annual conference is held in Geneva for three weeks. All countries that are members of the UN are entitled to participate in the conference represented by two delegates from the government and one delegate each from the employers’ and workers’ organisations of all member countries. The conference adopts conventions and makes recommendations.
Why workers head abroad…
Not all the nations in the world have enough jobs to offer to their workers and pay them living wages. If not for petroleum and gas, Malaysian workers too may probably have left their homes for foreign countries in search of jobs. There are many countries in the world without enough jobs for their workers. At the same time, several other countries are facing a shortage of workers.
Based on my observations and analysis, a number of employers and the governments in several countries are sympathetic to their foreign employees. The trade unions in these countries enrol the foreign workers as members and give necessary protection and assistance. The foreign workers are usually provided with free accommodation.
In Gulf countries, the vast majority of the employees, including teachers and even professionals, are foreigners. There are no trade unions to protect them. Nevertheless, some of the countries have enacted labour legislation aimed at providing the employees certain benefits and protection. Yet, exploitation and ill-treatment do occur.
Recently, I was in Doha, the capital city of Qatar, for three weeks. The Emir (Ruler) is people-friendly. He has been listed by a UK-based Intellectual Weekly as one of the ten leaders most capable of ruling the world. Despite this, even in that country, 67 Indian nationals, employees of a factory, were not paid their wages for three months. After two months of non-payment, five workers refused to work. One month later, the remaining 62 employees followed suit. The Indian Embassy intervened and the employer sought an amicable settlement. All the salary arrears, short of one month, were paid and all the employees were reinstated. According to a local source, it was the first time such an illegal strike was successful. Thus, 67 Indian workers created history in Qatar.
There are two types of immigrant workers in Malaysia – legally appointed employees and undocumented migrant workers. Nobody knows how many undocumented migrants there are in this country.
Almost all the legally recruited workers had never left their countries before. They were recruited by agents. The passports of all legal workers contain a section for personal particulars, job description , the name of the company, the monthly salary, the duration of the employment (usually two years) etc. Usually, these workers are transported in groups. The agents in Malaysia would receive them and then hand them over to the employers concerned. Many of them never get the jobs they are recruited for or receive the exact salaries as specified in their passports but the workers have no choice but to agree to the conditions they are subjected to.
The undocumented workers arrive with the help of certain so-called agents. Those who come from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan etc. would have paid RM12,000-RM14,000 to the agents in their countries. Their passports have a visitors’ visa usually for two to four weeks. They would have been strictly instructed as to what is to be done upon disembarking, which immigration counter they should go to, etc. An “agent” would receive them. There are several employers ever ready to employ them – for these foreigners can be exploited to the hilt.
From Indonesia, Philippines, etc, the undocumented workers arrive without any papers. These migrants reach Malaysian shores with money borrowed from loan sharks in their respective countries. Thus, they cannot return empty-handed. Come what may, they have no choice but to accept any employment. They live in perpetual fear, at times denied their wages for months.
As a result of the amnesty offered by the government, a few hundred thousand have left Malaysia. Still, it is no secret that many thousands of undocumented workers still remain.
Equal treatment – what does it mean?
Equal treatment means a lot of things as far as workers are concerned. First and foremost, a foreign worker’s salary must be converted to the salary scale of his Malaysian counterpart. They should be entitled to provident fund contributions, an 8-hour workday; overtime payment and the same number of public holidays, sick leave and vacation leave as enjoyed by their Malaysian counterparts. Free medical treatment and remuneration such as bonuses and shift duty allowances must also be paid to immigrant workers. Over and above, the provision of reasonably comfortable, free accommodation should be provided as a gesture of goodwill on the part of the employer.
In addition, where there are trade unions, foreign employees must be accepted as members. Where there are no trade unions, the government should encourage the formation of unions. These unions should take care of the rights and obligations of not only the local workers but also their foreign counterparts. This will not only reduce the task of enforcement officers but also empower the unions to deal with employment problems. Based on my decades of experience and involvement in trade unions, I assure the government and the employers that there will be industrial peace and better productivity.
FOMEMA – a lucrative concession
The Foreign Workers Medical Examination Monitoring Agency (FOMEMA) was established by the government primarily to monitor the health of foreign workers. Before foreign workers land in Malaysia, they must have a certificate signed by a qualified doctor stating that they are medically fit to be employed in Malaysia.
Subsequently, it is mandatory on the part of the employer to ensure that the worker concerned undergoes medical examination annually. But more recently, the workers are now required to undergo a medical check-up within one month of arrival in Malaysia as well. These tests, carried out by local general practitioners, are arranged by Fomema. The employer has to fork out RM180 for a male employee and RM190 for a female employee for these checkups. It is illegal for the employer to recover the amount by deducting it from the worker’s wages.
FOMEMA has already been privatised and an UMNOputra was awarded the contract without an open tender. Malaysia has some 1,700,000 legal foreign workers at present. The contractor is believed to be facing problems in some of its outlets and proper examinations are not always conducted.
I wish to make a suggestion. There are government hospitals and clinics all over Malaysia. Almost all of them are equipped with the necessary facilities and trained personnel. If the government undertakes the project, the costs could be reduced and the government will benefit financially. A portion of the savings can be shared with the doctors and staff. Above all, the incidence of corruption and foul-play will be drastically minimised.
The forgotten children
According to Aegile Fernandez of Tenagita, an NGO committed to rendering assistance to foreign workers, there are an estima
ted 10,000 stateless and undocumented migrant children, many of whom are orphans, stranded and unable to go to school because of lack of documents such as birth certificates. They are human beings. They did not ask to be brought into this world.
Our Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is God-loving and a man of compassion. These children must be allowed to study in schools. They must have some documents to prove that they were born in Malaysia. I am sure Tenagita will submit a comprehensive memorandum with appropriate proposals for the consideration of the government.
Changing employers’ attitudes
Most of our employers do not like to have trade unions. Even foreign employers from Japan, England and USA etc, who gladly cooperate with trade unions back home, resort to all sorts of tactics to avoid unions in Malaysia. They should change their attitude. It is time employers recognise the fact that cooperation between the two entities will result in harmony, higher productivity and increased profits. A contented labour force is an asset to the industry.
Some employers who have been guilty of exploitation might be reluctant to comply with the government’s decision to extend equal treatment to foreign workers especially the undocumented ones. But, in the interests of all concerned, they should change their mind-set. The net result will be a win-win situation for everyone.
K George, Aliran Monthly Vol 25 (2005): Issue 10