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Malaysia accused of migrant worker abuse by Amnesty

Indonesian migrant workers who say they have fled abusive employers in Malaysia at a shelter in Indonesia's embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - 23/6/2009
Some Indonesian workers have fled to a shelter at their embassy in Malaysia

Migrant workers in Malaysia are being exploited by both employers and police, Amnesty International says.

It says its report is the first to document how widespread the abuses are.

It says migrants are often forced into labour or exploited in other ways, such as having their passports confiscated by employers.

About one in five workers in Malaysia is a migrant. The Malaysian government has said it will increase checks on workplaces that employ foreigners.

Permits cancelled

Every year, thousands of people from Bangladesh, Indonesia and elsewhere in the region are lured to Malaysia by the promise of high salaries.

If migrants leave their Malaysian employment, they lose their legal status in the country and face criminal penalties ranging from fines and imprisonment to caning.

We don't protect employers who exploit workers
S Subramaniam
Malaysian Human Resource Minister

"The reason is because the moment they leave their work premises, the work permit is cancelled. And therefore the migrant worker loses his legal status in the country and thus is open to arrest and detention," said Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a Malaysian women's and migrant rights group.

"Almost 70% of those who came for assistance were forced to return [to their own countries] without getting any form of redress."

She said that 5,000 of the 5,315 cases her group handled last year were related to unpaid wages and unfair dismissal.

"You can then recognise how embedded and entrenched exploitation is in this country," she said.

Michael Bochenek, who wrote the report for Amnesty International, said the report "documents the widespread nature of exploitation in Malaysia... in every sector of employment".

He said some of the abuses were directly committed by the civilian volunteer force and police.

Vulnerable

"These are acts of harassment, of petty extortion, frankly, of robbery, of targeting of migrant workers, and of refugees for small sums of money and for goods like hand phones," he said.

Mr Bochenek said exploitation of migrants in Malaysia was widespread, occurring in all sectors that relied on foreign workers, such as the construction and oil palm plantation industries.

But domestic workers like maids are the most vulnerable because they are almost always excluded from the protection of existing labour laws.

"There is no effective system either of workplace inspection... nor is there any effective redress for workers who want to bring individual complaints," Mr Boechenek said.

Amnesty International is calling on the Malaysian government to close loopholes that allow exploitation of migrant workers to continue.

There are an estimated two million foreign workers in Malaysia.

But Malaysian Human Resource Minister S Subramaniam said all workers, both Malaysian and migrant, had the same rights, and could complain about mistreatment to the Labour Department.

"The system of bringing in foreign workers is a well-established legal system. It is fair to everybody," he told the Associated Press news agency.

"We don't protect employers who exploit workers."



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