Malaysia has begun to register undocumented labourers today, including those from Bangladesh, with less than a week to go before Bangladesh and Malaysia finalise a new labour deal.
The issue of importing Bangladeshi workers has been a contentious one in Malaysia, where the government and local trades bodies have been mired in a heated exchange over the issue all week.
On February 18, Malaysia’s Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri Richard Riot will be in Dhaka to finalise an agreement to import 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers over the next three years.
Bangladeshi labour market observers said the two issues – registering lapsed workers and importing new workers – are separate and should remain so.
Owing to the design of its labour permit system, a majority of the foreign workers in the Southeast Asian country – some 3.2 million out of a total of 6 million foreign workers – are undocumented because their labour permits have lapsed.
Under the registration scheme, only those whose employment permits have lapsed will be registered, not those who migrated illegally.
This means that conditions for the most vulnerable migrants are not likely to change, rights activists point out.
“Malaysia has created an underclass of workers called migrant workers,” migrant rights group Tenaganita said in a press statement on February 13, adding that it was imperative “not to compromise on the protection of rights, lives and dignity.”
The joint secretary to Bangladesh’s Expatriate Welfare Ministry Kazi Abul Kalam, told the Dhaka Tribune that getting lapsed workers back into the system is the first priority.
This will help to determine how many Bangladeshis are illegal migrants as opposed to lapsed ones, he said. Knowing this will give a clearer sense of the magnitude of the problem and will help the government deal with the issue later.
“The labour wing of the Bangladesh High Commission to Malaysia has been asked to keep an eye on the issue and to follow up as cases arise,” he said.
A public debate on whether or not to import the additional 1.5 million Bangladeshi labourers has pitted the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress against the Malaysian government.
Both trades bodies say labour imports should be halted until the registration process is completed.
But the FMM’s opposition to a new labour import deal is complicated by the fact that many of its members are actually in favour of labour imports.
Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, said requests for more foreign workers were made by industry players, including FMM members, The Malaysian Insider reported on February 13.