Millions of migrant workers will be at risk of debt bondage in Malaysia if employers deduct 20 percent of their salaries to prevent them from fleeing workplaces, two rights bodies said in a statement on Thursday.
Malaysian rights body Tenaganita and global anti-trafficking organisation Freedom United submitted a petition to the Malaysian human resources ministry, calling for cancellation of the proposal.
Malaysian Human Resources Minister M Kulasegaran in December last year announced that he was in favour of the deduction.
The two organisations immediately launched an online campaign to stop this plan, and by now have collected 18,194 signatures, calling on the minister to scrap the idea.
The issue bears significance for Bangladeshis as some 800,000 Bangladeshi migrants work in Malaysia. Between one to two lakh of them are estimated to be undocumented in the Southeast Asian country, which suspended recruitment from Bangladesh since September last year on allegations of a syndicate of recruiting agents and charging high cost that goes up to Tk 4 lakh.
The rights bodies said many migrant workers are already trapped in debt bondage, unable to pay off exploitative recruitment fees. Kulasegaran’s proposal will make the situation worse.
It cannot be a win-win solution where migrant workers are said to be able to collect the deducted amount when they leave the country after their work permits have expired, said the statement.
“We should be focusing on the root cause of why workers leave their employment. A significant number of those who flee do so due to exploitative working conditions, which include the withholding of wages, abuse and being overworked.”
“In reality, after years of experience working with migrant workers in Malaysia, we are very clear that this proposal would only encourage forced and bonded labour. In fact, it would only further institutionalize bonded labour, also violating international labour standards,” added the statement.
“Today, in the 21st century, Malaysia has created an underclass of workers called migrant workers who are open to extreme forms of exploitation that reflects modern day slavery,” said Glorene Das, executive director of Tenaganita.
Joanna Ewart-James, executive director of Freedom United, said they are concerned that the proposed wage deduction puts vulnerable workers at a much greater risk of modern slavery and restricts their movement that goes against fundamental labour rights.
“Migrant workers who have done nothing wrong do not deserve punishment,” she said, expecting that the Malaysian government would reconsider its strategy.