A meaningful right to redress mechanism should be put into place to enable migrant workers to have their complaints heard and acted upon in a just manner, says Rani Rasiah.
Thanks to the Malaysian government’s denial of the right to redress, the oppression and exploitation of migrant workers continues unabated.
Among the latest predatory employers to take advantage of this situation is Hume Cemboard, a subsidiary of Malaysia-based conglomerate, Hong Leong Group.
Barely four months after they began working, 33 Sri Lankan workers were summarily dismissed by the management of Hume Cemboard in Kanthan, Perak. Dismissal according to our labour laws may only be effected if justified after a process which involves warnings, show cause, and domestic inquiry. No such process was followed, and the workers were sacked on the spot in mid-October 2015.
What is worse is what prompted the dismissal. The management had breached certain terms in the employment contract from the start, and the workers finally decided to complain. The specific complaint was the non-payment of allowances such as the shift allowance (noon-shift RM5/day and night shift RM10/day) as promised in the contract.
This seemingly harmless action, however, resulted in consequences that the workers were completely unprepared for: repatriation to Sri Lanka within a week! For, after dismissing them, the employer had with the aid of the immigration department cancelled the work permit (PLKS) and obtained the ‘checkout memo’, which is a non-negotiable ‘go home’ directive – all done unilaterally, with the aid of the immigration department and without the workers’ presence.
Obviously, the employer viewed the workers as less than workers with rights and more like slaves. He could make fake agreements, hold the workers’ passports, and fire them as he wished, and the workers were not supposed to complain.
Employers like Hume Cemboard are emboldened by the government’s migrant worker policies and enforcement system which offer little opportunity for migrant workers to obtain justice.
Though our laws allow, there is no right to redress available for migrant workers in practice. So if a worker has not been paid wages or has been beaten up by the employer or has been wrongfully sacked, he/she has every right under the law to seek justice. But legal provisions are cancelled out by official policies and practices.
The sudden change in circumstances for the Sri Lankan workers was no doubt nightmarish. How could they go back so soon and empty-pocketed, after having left their homeland with a large debt?
But the prospect of staying on and working illegally without a work permit was also daunting. Sri Lanka embassy officials chose not to rock the official boat, as remittances by their migrant workers are high priority. They took the side of the management and told the workers to go home.
The majority of the 33 workers have returned to Sri Lanka, but a minority seem to have slipped quietly into the vast pool of undocumented workers, joining the invisible workforce of 3m, whose economic contribution is accepted without question but whose status is held in deep disdain.
Migrant workers who now form 30% of the Malaysian workforce should be given better protection by the government, and not left to the mercy of employers. A meaningful right to redress mechanism should be put into place to enable workers to have their grouses heard and acted upon in a just manner.
Such a mechanism should have the following features:
- Passports should at all times be held by workers. This will enable workers to liaise with or lodge complaints at the police station or labour office or immigration department. This policy already exists but is widely breached, and needs to be enforced.
- The dismissed worker must be enabled to seek redress at the labour department. This means, there should be no cancellation of the work permit (PLKS) pending the outcome of the case. And no issuance of the ‘checkout memo’ as well.
- Upon filing a complaint at the labour department, the worker must be given the right to stay on and find alternative employment for the entire length of the case until a decision is made.
Such a mechanism is not an obstacle to decent employers, but it will grant migrant workers the basic human right of redress and greatly improve the image of our government.
PSM migrants desk, PSM central committee member