Because of Malaysia’s failure to reform its flawed immigration and labor policies, migrant domestic workers become prey to abusive employers and labor agents, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

Human Rights Watch also called on Malaysia to exempt particularly vulnerable groups such as refugees, abused migrant workers and trafficking victims from its immigration crackdown.

Last year, Malaysia promised to create a labor agreement with Indonesia on migrant domestic workers within a three-month period. More than a year has passed, and there has been little, if any, progress. Malaysia’s labor law, which protects most categories of workers, specifically excludes domestic workers.

Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia typically work grueling 16 to 18 hour days, seven days a week, and earn less than US$5 a day. Many employers hold their domestic worker’s salary until the end of the standard two-year contract. In Malaysia, most domestic workers are forbidden to leave their workplace and many suffer psychological, physical, and sexual assault by labor agents and employers. Nongovernmental organizations and the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur have received thousands of complaints from maids about working conditions, wages or abuse in the past few years.

“It’s time for Malaysia to clean up its own house by extending labor protections to domestic workers,” said LaShawn R. Jefferson, Women’s Rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Domestic workers in Malaysia continue to face rampant abuse.”

Human Rights Watch also criticized the immigration crackdown that Malaysia began March 1. Malaysian authorities and 300,000 civilian volunteers have arrested thousands of undocumented migrants and prosecuted them under the country’s harsh immigration laws. Those found guilty may be caned, imprisoned for five years, fined up to 10,000 Malaysian ringgit (around US$2,600), and detained indefinitely pending deportation.

Even some who have received international protection as refugees have been caught up in the sweeps instead of receiving protection. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been able to secure the release of over 500 refugees and persons of concern who were detained during the crackdown began. However, UNHCR still seeks the release of 1100 individuals determined to need international protection. Approximately 400 are currently being prosecuted, and 60 have been sentenced to caning, imprisonment and fines.

Similarly, trafficking victims and migrants whose employers committed labor rights violations and crimes against them risk being prosecuted under Malaysia’s immigration laws instead of receiving assistance. Many of them have been victims of physical and sexual abuse, forced confinement, and employers’ refusal to pay wages. Suhakam, the national human rights commission, has found that many foreign women in Malaysia’s prisons are trafficking victims.

Malaysia is one of the largest importers of foreign labor in Asia. Approximately 20 percent of its workforce is comprised of migrants, primarily employed in construction, palm oil plantations and domestic service. Nearly half a million migrants, mostly Indonesians, left Malaysia during an amnesty period ending February 28, causing severe labor shortages and losses to industry that run to hundreds of millions of dollars.

More than 90 percent of Malaysia’s 240,000 domestic workers are Indonesian. Recently, Malaysia has shown interest in recruiting domestic workers from Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand because labor agencies have recruited only 12,000 Indonesian domestic workers in the previous six months instead of the typical 60,000.

The significantly lower pay and poor working conditions in Malaysia compared to other common destinations like Singapore and Hong Kong have fueled the shortage. While Malaysia excludes domestic workers from most standard labor protections, Hong Kong ensures domestic workers’ rights to rest days, a minimum wage, limitations on hours of work, and to join unions.

“Malaysia is shooting itself in the foot by repeatedly failing to reform its immigration and labor policies,” said Jefferson. “Mass expulsions will not solve illegal immigration.The government must commit itself to meaningful labor reforms and the prevention of abuse.”