Malaysia and Indonesia have signed an agreement on labor migration that denies basic protections to migrant workers and excludes household workers, Human Rights Watch said today. Indonesian domestic workers, almost exclusively women, are at grave risk of abuse and exploitation in Malaysia.

On May 10, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding that seeks to regulate recruitment procedures for the hundreds of thousands of Indonesians who migrate to Malaysia for work each year. One to two million Indonesian migrants work in Malaysia, and more than half of them do not have legal immigration status. Approximately 75 percent of legal migrants are women, many of whom work in child care, housekeeping and elder care. Indonesian migrants also work in construction, agriculture and other sectors.

"This migrant labor agreement misses the opportunity to protect the rights of those who need it most," said LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "Indonesian workers often encounter abuses at every stage of the migration cycle, but this accord treats them like tradable goods, with almost no guarantees for their rights."

Abuses against Indonesian migrant workers—including unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions, restrictions on freedom of movement, and verbal and physical abuse—are rampant. Human Rights Watch documented such abuses in Indonesia and Malaysia in early 2004. Nongovernmental organizations in both countries and the Indonesian embassy in Malaysia have received thousands of complaints in the past few years.

Since workers' visas are tied to their employers, those workers who escape from abusive workplaces lose their legal immigration status, and can be detained and deported. Employers and agents hold workers' passports, reducing their ability to negotiate working conditions or to run away.

The new labor migration agreement, while setting more rigid recruitment standards, fails to establish minimum standards for protecting migrant workers' rights. Serious shortcomings include:

* Exclusion of domestic workers from the agreement. Some government officials have proposed a separate agreement for domestic workers, but no timeline has been announced. Domestic workers, unlike other migrant workers, are also excluded from most protections of Malaysia's employment laws.

* The right of employers and agents to 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.

* The lack of minimum standards for working conditions, including a defined minimum wage, hours of work, regular payment of wages, rest days, and safe workplaces.

* Failure to provide mechanisms for remedies for workers, or to outline sanctions for employers and labor agents who commit abuses.

* No guarantees for workers' freedom of association.