Proposed Malaysian Migrants Bill Would Violate Basic Freedoms
February 22, 2007
Instead of improving the situation, Malaysia’s proposed foreign worker bill will make it dramatically worse.
Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

(New York) - At their meeting this week, Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyuno should commit to stronger protections for Indonesian migrants working in Malaysia, Human Rights Watch said today. Abdullah is in Jakarta to receive an Indonesian award for heads of state, the Bintang Republik Indonesia Adipradana.

Approximately 2.5 million migrants work in Malaysia, and the majority are Indonesians working in plantations, construction and domestic service. Gaps in labor laws and punitive immigration policies have left many migrants at risk of abuse and labor exploitation by employers and recruitment agencies.

Malaysia recently announced plans to introduce new legislation that would restrict migrants to their workplace or living quarters. Such measures violate workers’ right to freedom of movement. The resulting isolation would also put them at risk of other abuses, as demonstrated in the case of the approximately 300,000 migrant domestic workers in Malaysia. Many domestic workers already confront restrictions on their movement and communication.

“Instead of improving the situation, Malaysia’s proposed foreign worker bill will make it dramatically worse,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher on women’s rights in Asia for Human Rights Watch. “It’s shocking that Malaysia is even considering a proposal that would give employers freedom to lock up workers.”

As Human Rights Watch reported in “Help Wanted: Abuses against Female Migrant Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia,” Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia often work grueling 16 to 18 hour days, seven days a week, and earn less than 25 US cents per hour. Some suffer physical or sexual abuse. These workers are excluded from key protections in Malaysia’s main labor laws, and nongovernmental organizations and the Indonesian mission in Malaysia have received thousands of complaints from domestic workers in recent years.

In Indonesia, labor agents often subject prospective workers to extortion, discriminatory hiring processes, and months-long confinement in overcrowded training centers. In Malaysia, some labor agents turn a deaf ear to women’s complaints about abusive treatment and pleas to return home.

The two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in May 2006 to regulate migration of domestic workers. Positive measures included the introduction of a standard contract and protections against cutting workers’ salaries to repay fees borne by the employer. However, it allows employers to keep workers’ passports, prohibits workers from marrying, and fails to introduce clear standards on a minimum wage, a weekly day off, or monitoring mechanisms for labor agencies.

“While creating the MOU was a step in the right direction, both Indonesia and Malaysia continue to drag their feet in guaranteeing the most important protections for these women,” said Varia. “Domestic workers have to rely on the whim of employers rather than the rule of law for decent working conditions.”

Human Rights Watch said that Indonesia and Malaysia should reform the MOU to, at a minimum, include:

  • A commitment to pursue legislative changes to extend equal protection under Malaysia’s labor laws to domestic workers, specifically Section XII of the Employment Act of 1955 and the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1952.
  • The right of workers to hold their own passports. When employers or agents hold workers’ passports, this form of control makes it difficult for workers to escape abusive conditions or to negotiate better working conditions and full payment of their wages.
  • A standard contract that ensures minimum labor protections, including: a 24-hour rest period per week; a fair minimum wage; a limitation on working hours per week; benefits; and safe working conditions.
  • The creation of clear mechanisms to provide timely remedies for migrant domestic workers in cases of abuse, and to outline sanctions for employers and labor agents who commit these abuses. Migrant domestic workers with pending criminal cases or labor complaints should be allowed to work while waiting for their cases to be concluded.
  • Stronger regulations governing recruitment agencies, with clear mechanisms to monitor and enforce these standards. Issues such as agency fees, standard contracts, provision of accurate information, and conditions of training centers should be addressed.
  • Protection of workers’ ability to form associations and unions.

“Migration benefits both countries tremendously – by providing important services to Malaysia and needed income to Indonesian workers,” said Varia. “But, despite a long history of large migration flows, Malaysia and Indonesia have lagged behind other countries in ensuring basic protections for migrant workers.”

July 2004 Human Rights Watch report “Help Wanted: Abuses against Female Migrant Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia” in English.

To view the report in Indonesian, please visit: this page