The prosperous Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia has something in common with many Western Europe states and the U.S. -- a massive influx of illegal immigration from poorer neighboring countries.
According to the New Straits Times newspaper of Malaysia, an estimated two-thirds of the country’s 3.1 million foreign workers are illegal. The Jakarta Post newspaper estimates that 2 million of these laborers originate in Indonesia, working primarily in the agricultural sector. (Malaysia has a total population of about 29 million, meaning more than one-tenth are foreign laborers.)
Poverty in nations like Indonesia and Philippines drives people to seek work in Malaysia, while unscrupulous agencies exacerbate the problem by exploiting the desperation of the poor with unrealistic assurances of good-paying jobs.
Earlier this week, the Jakarta Post reported that 82 illegal immigrants from Indonesia were deported to their homeland. These particular women had been recruited by various migrant agencies who promised them jobs in Malaysia and Mideast countries. None of them possessed valid work visas.
Illegal Indonesians in Malaysia tend to work in construction, in domestic service or in palm oil plantations, usually for very low pay under unpleasant working conditions.
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Nonetheless, Indonesians can integrate into Malaysian society quite easily compared with other foreigners, given the two culture’s similarities in religion, language, customs and foods.
As in the U.S., Malaysian businesses depend heavily on the cheap labor provided by illegal foreign workers.
"We are still very dependent on them [foreign workers]," said Malaysia’s Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri Dr. S. Subramaniam, according to New Straits Times.
"Business owners said that without foreign laborers, their businesses would take a hit, which in turn, would affect the economy."
Again, similar to the plight of Hispanic immigrants in the U.S., Indonesians in Malaysia are willing to work in the kinds of menial jobs that native Malays tend to shun.
"The work environment is not attractive enough for our locals,” said Shamsuddin Bardan, the executive director of The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF), according to New Straits Times.
"No matter how much an employer is willing to pay them, locals shun them due to the low social status associated with the jobs."
A quick survey of the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia may shed some light on why so many Indonesians seek greener pastures in Malaysia.
According to the CIA World/Factbook, Malaysia boasts a GDP-per-capita figure that is almost four times that of Indonesia, while the percentage of people living below the poverty line is three times as high in Indonesia.
But the Malaysian government approves of only five sectors where it encourages foreign labor participation: plantation, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and domestic help. Employers who use foreign labor in other sectors of the economy are subject to punishment and fines, and their charges are vulnerable to deportation.
"These [approved] sectors are critical, and if we discard foreign labor altogether, it would be difficult for them to survive,” Shamsuddin noted.
"Needless to say, to a certain extent, we cannot do away with them [foreign labor], and we must be careful in gauging the sectors which would require them.”
Not surprisingly, despite the similarities in Malay and Indonesian cultures, some Malays are unhappy with the large presence of Indonesians (illegal or otherwise) in their country.
Last April, three Indonesian migrant workers were shot to death in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan by Malaysian police, who suspected them of criminal activity. The killings sparked demands by human rights activists in Indonesia for greater protection of Indonesian workers in Malaysia.
The executive director of the Jakarta-based Migrant Care organization, Anis Hidayah, complained to the Jakarta Post: “Among the destination countries for migrant workers, Malaysia is the most unsafe for Indonesian workers, as between 600 and 700 Indonesians die of various causes, including torture, shooting and exploitative acts by their employers.”
A Malaysian human rights activist, Irene Fernandez, the executive director of Tenaganita, has also campaigned for the right of Indonesian workers in her nation. She condemned the shooting deaths of the three Indonesians in Negeri Sembilan.
“The Malaysian police have no authority to shoot them, even if they are criminal suspects,” she told the Post. “Based on the report that we received, the three workers were not criminals or fugitives and they were not caught committing any crimes.”
On a broader scale, Fernandez lamented that foreign workers in Malaysia have few rights.
“Malaysia has no legal framework, nor a particular law to protect workers,” she stated.
”Even worse, the Malaysian government has upheld discrimination against housemaids and plantation workers, both of whom are excluded from the newly issued regulation on minimum wages. Migrant workers have been objects of exploitation, physical abuse, violence and rape.”
She noted that Malaysian employers frequently hold onto their foreign workers’ passports, multiplying their woes, and are also guilty of paying off police and government officials to avoid punishment over hiring illegal foreigners.
“The Indonesian government should not resume sending workers to Malaysia until the government and employers change their mind-sets and make a particular law to protect them and their rights,” Fernandez declared.
In addition, Indonesian female domestic workers have been raped in Malaysia, placing great strain on relations between the two countries. For two years, Indonesia banned women from migrating to Malaysia to work as domestics -- that prohibition was lifted in December 2011.
However, a shocking gang-rape of an Indonesian maid in November 2012 (allegedly by three Malay policemen) again brought the problem of abuse to the surface. According to reports, the police sexually assaulted the woman because she did not have proper work documentation.
Hidayah of Migrant Care called on Indonesian authorities to re-impose the ban on sending female maids and housekeepers to Malaysia.
“I think that [migrant workers] will only become the target of more exploitation, I hope that the government considers a moratorium, not only for migrant workers and maids, but for all kinds of workers,” she told the Jakarta Globe.
But even illegal workers who are deported from Malaysia, frequently seek to return, due to a lack of opportunities in their native countries.
The Malaysian Insider reported earlier this week that two illegal immigrants, a Filipino and an Indonesian, told the local Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) that they want to return to work in Sabah, a state in northern Malaysia, but legally.
“I want to get a passport and come back,” the Filipino told the RCI.
“I want to find work. Pay is low [in the Philippines],” he said.
The Insider reported that since 1990, more than 446,000 illegal immigrants have been deported from Sabah alone.
Sabah state officials estimate that, even accounting for the steady stream of deportations, about 28 percent of the province’s population comprises foreigners (legal or otherwise).