KOTA KINABALU: Physical safety and the availability of jobs are the main reasons refugees who fled the southern Philippines in the 1970s as well as their descendants have chosen to remain in Sabah.
Many of them work in the so-called “dangerous, dirty and difficult” sectors, but according to Universiti Malaysia Sabah lecturer Lee Kuok Tiun, they are safe from harm and they make good money.
Lee was commenting on Deputy Home Minister Azis Jamman’s statement that many of the children and grandchildren of those holding refugee identification papers wished to remain in Sabah.
The document the original refugees hold, called IMM13, contains a condition that they must return to their country once peace prevails there, but they are allowed to raise families and work in Sabah.
Azis said efforts had been made to repatriate the descendants of IMM13 holders, but he added that they told the Philippines embassy they wanted to remain in Sabah.
He also said the Philippines government would not accept them as citizens.
They have thus become stateless persons.
Employers like to hire them because they are willing to work long hours for low wages.
According to Sabah Housing and Real Estate Developers Association president Chew Shang Hai, 95% of the unskilled labour in the construction industry are foreign workers.
In the plantation sector, foreigners account for 77% of the workforce, according to Malaysian Palm Oil Board figures for 2017.
Sabah Employers’ Association president Yap Cheen Boon said local industries would suffer if they were repatriated. It would cause both a manpower shortage and a reduction of the market because immigrants were consumers too, he added.
A coffee shop owner in Kota Kinabalu, who gave his name as Michael, told FMT some migrant workers were willing to work more than 12 hours a day. He pays them RM800 a month and gives them free food and living quarters.
“Some coffee shop owners will give their workers the minimum wage of RM1,100, but then they charge them rental for the rooms they provide,” Michael said.
This was why, he added, some of them preferred to live in squatter areas.
An IMM13 holder, a woman of 40 who identified herself as Habsah, told FMT life in her native Mindanao was tough but she was saving money to return there to start a business. She works in a coffee shop.
“Only by starting your own business can you survive in the southern Philippines,” she said.
Habsah was a child when she came to Sabah with her parents, who are now dead.
She said her six younger brothers and sisters, all born in Sabah, were working as construction workers and in restaurants around Kota Kinabalu.
She said she visited Mindanao in 2010 and met her relatives. However, she added, her siblings knew no one in Mindanao.