Activists warn rushed visa deadline could force firms to source foreign workers unethically

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, March 9 — Advocates for migrant workers have warned of potential harm in Putrajaya’s decision to bring forward the deadline for recruiting labour from Bangladesh, calling it a rushed and poorly-informed decision that could force employers to cut corners in order to meet the arbitrary target.

Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail announced last Friday that all active recruitment quota for workers from Bangladesh will be voided if firms fail to have their calling visas ready by March 1, in a move that caught industries by surprise.

Saifuddin Nasution said the new deadline was decided in lieu of the decision to freeze all foreign worker hiring by May 31. It is unclear what prompted the decision but activists speculated that it could be to rein in syndicates that run rampant fraudulent recruitment rackets often abetted by corruption.

“If companies don’t bring foreign workers in now, even if they don’t actually need them and accommodation or production lines are not ready for them, who knows when they will next be able to do so legally,” said Andy Hall, a Nepal-based activist who track labour trafficking activities across Asean countries and South Asia.

“So, the risks of unethical, illegal recruitment and cutting corners to meet the short timeline for possibly unplanned recruitment raise risks that recruited workers, already so vulnerable, and they could fall victim again to unscrupulous recruitment intermediaries and unethical recruitment agencies,” he added.

Businesses seethed at the new deadline. Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers president Tan Sri Soh Thian Lai was reported calling the decision “sudden and hasty”, and that it could cause a severe manpower shortage and disrupt productions.

Some firms planned their migrant worker intake in stages according to their project schedule, and the new deadline could force companies to cancel job orders or face financial penalties for late delivery of orders, Soh said. The group said it was not consulted about the new deadline or the plan to halt all foreign worker hiring by May 31.

Adrian Pereira, head of the North-South Initiative, a migrant worker rights advocacy group, said any rushed policy that excludes the views of workers and employers is bound to raise problems.

“Any form of solution needs to be comprehensive. I think the tripartite relationship needs to be respected so unilaterally coming up with policies is highly likely going to be bad,” the activist said.

“They could resort to human traffickers and illegal agents to solve their labour shortage. Surely a risk. Any action that fails to account views of parties that are going to be affected will surely have reprisals.”

The deadline came amid a slew of drastic policy tweaks made in the span of just months. Early January, Saifuddin announced the decision to continue with a freeze on the application and approval for foreign workers quota, despite calls by the plantation sector to lift the ban because of a deep labour shortage.

Just two weeks later, the home minister announced the cutback of duration for application of foreign workers’ recruitment from 29 months and 13 days to 15 months and 23 days. Some industries fumed at the decisions, claiming it disrupted their plans to stack hiring based on peak and non-peak periods.

The new policies came amid mounting pressure for the Anwar government to reform the migrant worker hiring system.

The Malaysian government outsources recruitment jobs mostly to state-sanctioned agents and hiring companies, a system that activists said has enabled corruption and spawned a multi-billion ringgit industry that preys on impoverished workers from poor countries desperate for jobs. Workers can pay up to RM25,000 each just to get a job.

Alex Ong, an activist with Migrant Care, supported the move to halt foreign workers indefinitely until the hiring system has been completely tightened with strong regulations that would punish abusers. Ong suggested the foreign labour recycling programme can be utilised to offset labour shortages.

“We support the government decision to immediately stop the intake, by focusing on consolidation of existing labour surplus in the Workforce Recalibration Programme (RTK 2.0),” he said.

“Abuses of approved quota cannot remain unchecked. MOHR and KDN, employers, human resources departments and private agencies and intermediates need regularisation too. Most importantly, the illicitly collected placement fees always escape the radar of anti-money laundry watch groups.”

Before the March 31 calling visa deadline, Saifuddin Nasution and Steven Sim, the new minister of human resources, vowed to act swiftly and warned of stern action against companies that abuse their foreign worker quotas.

Over a year ago the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission raided Bestinet’s office as part of a wider dragnet against companies and government agencies suspected of corruption in foreign worker hiring. Bestinet was the IT system provider for Putrajaya’s Foreign Workers Centralised Management System (FWCMS).