Activists fear abuse in Malaysian labor amnesty

July 28, 2011 - 5:44 AM

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian labor activists urged the government Thursday to halt an amnesty program for illegal workers until clear guidelines are drawn to ensure migrants are not victimized or cheated.

The amnesty, due to start Monday, will be Malaysia's biggest effort to manage its population of some 4 million foreign workers, half of whom are illegal and most of whom are from neighboring Indonesia.

Those without documents will be fingerprinted for a biometrics database and allowed to stay in Malaysia if they have a job or will be deported without penalty.

Workers' rights group Tenaganita said some 330 companies appointed by the government to facilitate the registration process are charging exorbitant fees. One quoted up to 1,000 ringgit ($334) per person just to take fingerprints, director Irene Fernandez said.

The amnesty will hurt workers who entered the country legally but overstayed because their work permits were not renewed by their employers, she said. Some were also brought in by dishonest agents, who made them work in sectors not specified in their work visas, Fernandez said.

"Unscrupulous agents and employers are not made accountable, and corruption is rampant in the approval of work permits," she said. "This amnesty program, even with the use of biometrics system, will fail if the root causes of workers being made undocumented are not addressed."

Fernandez said the home ministry must ensure it has the capacity to monitor the registration to ward off cheating.

The Malaysian Trade Union Congress urged the government to investigate breaches committed by agents and employers, and put in place a monitoring mechanism to curb such malpractices.

"The program overall should benefit the migrant workers and not the employer, or the companies and agents who collect money under this program," it said in a statement.

Immigration officials couldn't be immediately reached for comments.

This relatively wealthy Southeast Asian nation attracts people from impoverished or war-torn places either looking for work locally or trying to enter other nations, such as Australia. It is dependent on foreign labor for tens of thousands of low-paying menial jobs at palm oil plantations, factories, construction sites and restaurants.

The Malaysian Employers Federation director Shamsuddin Bardan said there was a lot of confusion over the amnesty process and many were unhappy with the involvement of agents in the registration process.

"Everything is in the grapevine. It's not in clear terms. All this is giving the country a bad image, as if we are trying to make money or to profit from this program," he said.