13th Feb 2023:Andy Halls Perspective FMT – ‘Time to address corruption in Malaysia’s migrant worker management’

Andy Hall's perspective published by FMT - ‘Time to address corruption in Malaysia’s migrant worker management’

Feb 13th 2023: Andy Hall’s perspective published by FMT – ‘Time to address corruption in Malaysia’s migrant worker management’

Malaysia’s new government has pledged to reform the country’s ineffective migrant worker management systems. Workers from 15 countries will be brought into Malaysia to meet the demands of labour-starved employers quickly, cheaply and effectively. Regularisation or “recalibration” schemes will ensure millions of irregular workers in the country become officially employed and legal.

Original Article Available at: Free Malaysia TodayLetter to the Editor – From Andy Hall – 13th February 2023

The prime minister and the human resources minister have warned of a shake-up to migrant worker management processes, particularly regulating the role of “agents”. Malaysia’s home minister travelled last week to Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nepal to discuss achieving these lofty goals.

The new administration is right to focus on abuses by intermediaries (or agents) as a key cause of the abusive and ineffective migrant worker management in the country. Concerningly, however, nothing has yet been said about addressing ingrained corruption also embedded in these same systems.

Many migrant worker dependent industries in Malaysia use in-country intermediaries because they want to pay a “legal” fee to wash their hands of illegalities. Intermediaries engage with corrupt officials (allegedly linked to politicians) to secure migrant quotas for their clients, often bypassing official rules and regulations concerning accommodation quality and migrant-to-local employee ratios.

These same intermediaries, many not licensed under the Private Employment Agencies Act 1981, also facilitate recruitment of workers into Malaysia, regularisation of irregular workers, and worker’s housing and transport. Their service fees are high while their flight, hotel and even leisure activities are charged to workers and source country intermediaries. Employers are often billed the same costs.

When Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim implied these intermediaries, or “agents”, were the root cause of the ineffective migrant worker management processes in Malaysia, it’s only part of the reality. These facilitating actors are more often just vehicles for the ingrained corruption embedded for decades in these systems.

Payments of bribes by these intermediaries to corrupt government officials or politicians to facilitate recruitment and regularisation of foreign workers on behalf of employers or workers, need to end if we are to start solving Malaysia’s foreign worker challenges.

Bribes or kickbacks paid to ministry staff and Malaysian intermediaries by source country intermediaries must also stop. Currently, it is the source country’s manpower agencies that pay the highest commission to Malaysia that secure the most orders for recruiting foreign workers.

Allegations have been thrown at numerous Malaysian governments over the years of syndicates and systemic corruption in the way contracts have been awarded to private sector actors to manage overly complicated migrant worker management systems.

Worker and employer data management systems and software, multiple health checks both at source and destination, quota, security and visa approval processes, regularisation management – the list of bloated expenses involved in hiring a foreign worker goes on. The alleged profiteering must stop.

Regularisation processes for irregular workers are beneficial. Human, economic and national security gains arise from making workers legal in-country, given the failure over decades of numerous administrations to keep foreign workers regular, protected and employed.

However, bogus employers and intermediaries, including corrupt government officials and politicians, have extorted irregular workers as part of these regularisation processes for too long. Too many workers have been left irregular, in debt and at high risk of forced labour and modern slavery as a result.

All the bribes, commissions and costs involved in hiring a foreign worker are either paid for by an employer or a worker. That means vulnerable and often poverty-stricken workers coming into Malaysia from some of the poorest communities in the world continue to be burdened by these costs and end up in debt bondage, systemic forced labour, and hence modern slavery.

The new administration should consider the risks to vulnerable workers of securing and regularising foreign labour quickly to satisfy its industry constituents. The faster recruitment and regularisation are done, if corruption is not addressed, will result in greater risks to prospective workers and employers.

If the new administration doesn’t control spiralling costs by effectively revising migrant worker policies, ending corruption and properly regulating intermediaries and employers, the risks to vulnerable workers of forced labour from debt bondage will increase. Indebted slaves who involuntarily work non-stop in Malaysian companies to pay back their debt will become more commonplace.

This likely rise in abuse of vulnerable migrant workers will undermine Malaysia’s commitment to address forced labour and modern slavery. Malaysia’s economic security and potential for more inward sustainable investment could well be impaired as the international community and a global business community, increasingly concerned with due diligence and prevention of forced labour, retreat.

An effective migrant worker management system requires balancing national, economic and human security priorities of a state. Human security is the right of workers and citizens. Protecting migrant workers from abuse can easily exist alongside a strengthening of national security by minimising corruption and a strengthening of economic security by reducing unnecessary costs on employers.

The challenges for Malaysia in effectively reforming migrant worker management currently start not with ridding the system of “agents”, as the prime minister implied, but with tackling corruption. Then one can address the poor company practices before ridding the system of the often unnecessary, abusive intermediaries. The essential actors remaining after this reform then need to be made more professional.

One way to ensure responsible migrant worker recruitment is by ensuring employers cover all or most of the related recruitment costs for their workers. Then make selection processes for recruitment intermediaries that remain essential to be transparent and objective. Through a closely monitored open tender process, intermediaries get business based on the benefit they provide, and their ability.

There are indeed some ethical recruitment practices already existing in Malaysia and worker source countries. These need to be highlighted and scaled up in economically and practically effective ways.

Irregular worker regularisation processes should prioritise the rule of law and worker welfare. Corruption should end, and unnecessary intermediaries between employers and workers removed.

Finally, Malaysia’s migrant worker policy development processes and implementation systems need reform. Migrant worker policy should be developed and implemented holistically by a governance structure led by the prime minister, without one ministry dominating the discussions and outcomes.

Andy Hall is an independent migrant worker rights specialist.

Background Articles on Current Malaysian Migration Debates

See also: 21st March 2023: Political will needed to revamp intake of foreign workers in Malaysia.

See also: 26th Feb 2023: Malaysian glovemakers must show ‘no forced labour’ to sell to UK’s National Health Service.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top