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Political will can resolve labour migration issues

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The profit motive should be removed from the recruitment and management of migrant labour, observes Rani Rasiah.

A recent roundtable discussion on the need for a comprehensive policy on labour migration reveals how much agreement there is among stakeholders on the fundamentals of labour migration.

This gives hope that the underlying causes of the many problems plaguing labour migration could be tackled without having to contend with conflicting demands from opposite sides of the divide. It only remains for policymakers to make a sincere attempt to change the situation.

The roundtable on 4 August 2016 was organised by the Migrant Workers’ Right to Redress Coalition and hosted by the development studies department of the University of Malaya’s faculty of economics and administration.

Focusing on various aspects of recruitment and labour, the event brought together representatives of government, employers and workers (including sending-country embassy officials, the MTUC, and civil society organisations).

Removal of the profit motive from recruitment and management

The most significant recommendation put forward by both the MEF and workers and their organisations was that the profit motive should be removed from the recruitment and management of migrant labour.

Recruitment should be determined by the actual manpower needs of the country; it should complement the local labour force, and other existing sources of labour including undocumented workers and refugees.

Government-to-goverment and elimination of private agents’ involvement

In line with this principle, all stakeholders favoured the government-to-government (g-g) mechanism of hiring and managing migrant labour and the total elimination of private agent involvement. Removing the profit motive, it was agreed, could help overcome the many persistent problems associated with labour migration in Malaysia.

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One main problem a government-to-government mechanism can resolve is the oversupply of migrant labour that has contributed to massive numbers of undocumented workers and forced labour – and the considerably weakened bargaining power for all workers. This is in no small measure due to the involvement of private agents in the procurement and management of migrant labour.

A recent hiring exercise by the government attracted applications for 21,000 workers for the plantation sector. Official screening revealed that only 3,000 workers were requested by bona fide employers; the remaining 18,000 workers were sought by bogus employers!

Expectedly, the government-to-government mechanism is not popular with those whose business is migrant labour supply. By keeping a handle on supply and management, such a mechanism can help remove the incentive of trading in migrant labour supply, thereby curb human trafficking.

The problem of debt bondage and vulnerability, resulting from high recruitment fees charged by private agents in the home countries, can also be meaningfully addressed through this mechanism.

Currently workers are forced to borrow heavily to pay recruitment fees, and thereafter have to forgo wages for up to six months to settle their debts.

Recruitment costs through a government-to-government mechanism is about a quarter of that paid to private agents. For example, the recruitment cost for a Bangladeshi worker through this mechanism is RM3,000 – but agents charge RM13, 000.

Only one medical report from reputable clinic in home country

Costs can be further cut if the current practice of paying for two medical reports, one in the home country and one in Malaysia is done away with. Employers shared their discontentment over how the cost per medical examination shot up from RM60 to RM180 after the private entity Fomema took over the service from the government.

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The proposal was for workers to obtain only one medical report from a reputable medical facility in the home country.

Only one ministry to handle all aspects of employment

Too many ministries are now handling labour migration with poor or little coordination among them. In addition, the home ministry, which should be concerned with all immigration and security related aspects of labour migration, has the final say even on work-related matters.

There was complete agreement that this arrangement was problematic for all stakeholders, and that only one ministry, the ministry of human resources, should be responsible for and manage all matters related to employment.

Political will needed to make changes

What was clear at the roundtable discussion was that existing policies on recruitment and management need to be completely revamped. Importantly too, key aspects of it could be done with the full support of workers and employers.

It is now in the hands of policymakers to make the changes. The changes proposed are not novel, and are already partially in practice now, for example, the government has government-to-government arrangements with certain sending countries.

What is needed is the political will to make these fundamental changes. Labour migration has become one of the sectors that the government has used for its affirmative action agenda of creating a bumiputera contractor caste. So a big shift in thinking is needed.

That will be harder than it appears for the reason that it is not just affirmative action pure and simple anymore, as vested interests have hijacked the agenda. Big, lucrative business opportunities have been created in labour migration and these have been granted to cronies of the political elite.

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Taking over recruitment and management from private hands will not be a simple matter for the government. But it is something the government shouldn’t postpone doing.

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