Send foreign workers home if you cannot protect them, Putrajaya told

Aegile Fernandez, co-founder of human rights group Tenaganita, says thousands of migrant workers are dying and suffering in detention centres. (Bernama pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: The government has been urged to treat migrant and domestic workers in the country with respect and dignity.

If Putrajaya could not do this, then it should send home the foreign workers, Aegile Fernandez, co-founder of human rights group Tenaganita, said today.

Speaking at a press conference in conjunction with International Migrants Day today, Aegile, asked: “Do we really protect migrant workers and local workers? I’m asking this because since 1983 when we started to work with domestic workers… until today, 2018, domestic workers are not protected at all.”

Saying something was seriously wrong, she added: “Do we think we are going to protect them in time to come? I don’t know. We should ask every Malaysian and government department official about this.

“I, as a Malaysian, as an activist, say ‘no’ on International Migrants Day… because in all the years, we have seen thousands of migrant workers dying and suffering in detention centres.

“Yet we are not doing anything.”

The joint press conference was organised by Tenaganita, rights advocacy group North-South Initiative and NGO Caram Asia.

Aegile Fernandez.

Aegile said Malaysia was known globally as the country with the “highest number” of foreign workers put in forced labour conditions and had the “worst record in human trafficking”. She added, “we put them there”.

“This is because we have not addressed strongly workers’ protection and conditions they live in. We have not taken to task the companies, the employers, the perpetrators and the traffickers.

“We just keep quiet. I also want to put this forward to all Malaysians: you know this, but you don’t want to come out and talk. It’s time for us to respect and give dignity to foreign workers.

“If we cannot give them dignity, I’d rather we send all migrant workers home. They have better dignity even if they are poor back home. Send them back, and let us… take care of our own labour force.

“I think that’s the challenge I want to put to the government of the day. Are you serious in protecting workers?

“If you are not, then please send them home because enough is enough. There are no more tears to be shed.”

Aegile pointed to the proposed salary deduction by employers of 20% of foreign workers’ basic salaries to prevent them from “fleeing”, and asked how this could be done without asking for their permission.

“You are concerned without deductions they will jump high and low, but we don’t respect that the migrant worker is a worker and has the right to tell whether any amount of money can be deducted and for what reason.”

Human Resources Minister M Kulasegaran on Saturday proposed this to prevent employers from incurring losses on their investments in foreign workers if they fled, which, he said, was a major problem.

He said the money would be deducted and kept in the Social Security Organisation (Socso) and handed back to the foreign workers when they left the country upon expiry of their work permit.

He has since backtracked on this after receiving brickbats from rights groups, saying it was only a proposal.

“I think we have a very serious gap where we don’t have workers being part and parcel of decisions and discussions,” Aegile said.

There are an estimated four to six million migrant workers in Malaysia, according to Tenaganita executive director Glorene Dass.

They mainly work in the plantation, manufacturing and construction sectors, she said.

Glorene said despite the dependency on migrant labour, migrant workers were still exploited and discriminated against.

She also pointed to the “intensified” raids by the Immigration Department on migrant workers in recent years.

“For the past couple of months, all the statements and ad hoc policies from the ministries, especially the human resources ministry, has been driven by the corporate world, and that is commodification of migrant workers.

“We cannot call a woman a servant anymore, and we cannot deem domestic work as a labour of love. It must be recognised as work.”

Glorene called for a national comprehensive policy on the recruitment, placement and employment of migrant workers.

“Otherwise, it continues to encourage labour trafficking, human trafficking, of migrant workers.”