Friday, 6 June 2003

Strengthen Laws to Protect Migrant
Workers' Rights

Aliran is dismayed that a Butterworth-based company was able to deport seven of its Burmese migrant workers even though the Labour Department was in the midst of investigating the firm's treatment of its migrant workers. The seven were among 25 Burmese workers employed by Ban Guan Manufacturing (M) Sdn Bhd, a firm producing garments. The migrant workers had earlier been enticed to come to Malaysia to work with the company with a guarantee that their total wages including overtime would be not less than RM700.
When they arrived in Malaysia, they were shocked to find out that their take-home wages in some cases fell below RM100/month. Others have received take-home wages in the region of RM100 to RM200. This was due to a host of deductions from the workers' salaries, not all of which had been approved by the Labour Department as required by law. A huge chunk - 50 percent - is deducted to repay loans taken to finance their trip to Malaysia and pay off agents' fees and air-fare. In addition, there are other deductions: 10 percent supposedly for Burma's income tax; and deductions for foreign workers' levies. If the workers made mistakes in sewing the garments, they were often made to pay for the defective garment, thus reducing their wages even further.
The company claims that the workers were not the skilled workers they had asked for and consequently their productivity was low. It argues that this is the reason the workers were not asked to work much overtime. But surely this is not the fault of the workers but the employment agents who had enticed the workers to come over to Malaysia based on fraudulent guarantees. To deport them to Burma - while a Labour Department investigation into the company's treatment of migrant workers is ongoing - shows that employers here have too much power to do what they like with migrant workers without having to account for their actions. To make matters worse, the deported workers are believed not to have received their wages for May.
The quarters provided to these migrant workers - dilapidated plank long houses, where they are crammed seven to a room - are in appalling condition, unfit for human habitation. Undergrowth surrounds these quarters and all sorts of creatures - reptiles and monkeys - have been known to enter the compound.
Because of all these complaints, the Labour Department had commenced an investigation recently. On the morning of Monday, 2 June 2003, five workers' representatives went to lodge an official complaint with the Labour Department in Butterworth. An officer assured them that the Labour Department was in the midst of their investigation procedure and would be issuing a show-cause letter to the company this week.
But the migrant workers received a rude shock on Tuesday morning, 3 June, when the company ordered seven of the workers, including those who had gone to the Labour Department, to be returned to Burma. With the assistance of enforcement officials, the Immigration Department, and Burmese embassy officials, the seven workers were swiftly transported to Kuala Lumpur and promptly deported to Burma on Wednesday, 4 June.
It is appalling that the employers were able to cancel the workers' work permits and get them deported even though the Labour Department was in the middle of investigations into the company's treatment of its migrant workers. We are deeply disappointed with the Embassy of Burma, a nation now ruled illegally by military dictators. Their officials have failed to protect and assist their nation's workers despite being fully aware of the workers' many complaints against their employer. They also allow employers to deduct 60 percent of their workers' wages to be remitted to Burma, leaving workers like those in Ban Guan with nothing much to live on.
Something is wrong with our Malaysian laws when it fails to protect migrant workers and safeguard them from exploitative working and living conditions. The workers also have little access to effective channels to resolve legitimate grievances against employers.
We urge the relevant authorities to strengthen laws to protect the rights of migrant workers and to come down hard on employers who regard migrant workers as no more than slave labour. The Malaysian government must also ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. This Convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1990 and enters into force on 1 July 2003. The Convention aims to prevent and eliminate the exploitation of migrant workers throughout the entire migration process. It also provides binding international standards relating to the treatment, welfare and human rights of both documented and undocumented migrants, as well as the obligations and responsibilities on the part of sending and receiving States.
Finally, we urge the Government to:
investigate how the company was able to deport the seven workers so swiftly despite ongoing investigations by the Labour Department into the company ensure that the company compensates all 25 workers - including those repatriated - for their shortfall in wages and unauthorised deductions ensure that the company or its agents compensates the seven deported workers for the outstanding loans in Burma that they took to finance their journey here to obtain employment in Malaysia ensure that all migrant workers receive a take-home wage that is not different from that paid to Malaysian workers to enable them to live in dignity ensure minimum standards are met for the accommodation provided to migrant workers

Aliran Executive Committee
5 June 2003

This statement was sent to the local media including The Star, New Straits Times, and The Sun.