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December 1998, Volume 5, Number 12

Malaysia: Illegals Out, New Workers In

On November 1, the Malaysian government announced that it had extended to November 15 an October 31 deadline to allow illegal Indonesian migrants to return home without paying fines. The Malaysian Deputy Home Minister reported that between August 31 and October 31, some 142,000 illegal migrants had returned to their native countries, including 123,548 to Indonesia; 8,937 to Bangladesh; 3,191 to India; 2,662 to the Philippines; and 1,049 to Myanmar (Burma). Most of those who left worked on plantations and in construction.

Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah returned 21,396 illegal migrants between January and November, 1998; another 30,000 left without reporting to the authorities. Sabah and Sarawak, which have an estimated 800,000 foreigners, plan campaigns to round up remaining illegal migrants. The opposition PBS party said that Sabah should stop encouraging the development of new plantations, since they increase the need for foreign workers. Sarawak reported in late November that it had 53,489 registered foreign workers in the manufacturing and plantation sectors and working as maids; 10,114 left between August and mid-November 1998, 99 percent were Indonesians.

There are still an estimated 400,000 illegal foreign workers in Malaysia. If caught, they face fines of M$500 (US$125) for every day of overstay.

The government said that there would be no labor shortages despite the departure of legal and illegal foreign workers because employers have been given permission to import 220,000 additional foreign workers, 180,000 for the peninsula and 20,000 each in Sabah and Sarawak. These "fresh" workers--Malaysia does not permit the return of experienced migrants--are destined for employers who produce goods for export, including plantations and manufacturing. Many researchers believe that it would be better to legalize currently illegal workers to minimize recruitment, transportation and training costs. About 700,000 foreign workers were legalized in a 12-month period in 1996-97.

The levy that employers pay for the privilege of hiring illegal workers will be reduced, from, for example, M$1500 ($400) to M$360 ($95) a year for estate and mining foreign workers in Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan--the levy for foreign estate workers and maids in peninsular Malaysia will remain at M$360. Employers of foreign workers must pay a M$50 ($13) processing fee for each worker requested.

Expelling legal and illegal foreign workers while admitting new foreign workers is a continuation of Malaysia's stop-go migration policies. Dr. Azizah Kassim, a professor at Universiti Malaya, estimated that Malaysia had about 2.2 million foreigners in 1998, but noted that Malaysians still emigrate for jobs, in some cases to fill the same type of jobs filled by migrants in Malaysia. Azizah called on the government to replace its ad hoc measures with a systematic approach to dealing with foreigners.

The Philippine Journal reported that as of October 20, less than two percent of the Filipinos in Malaysia had voluntarily left the country. About 96,000 illegal Filipino workers in Malaysia face arrest and deportation for ignoring the amnesty program. The Filipino government allocated US$85,000 to repatriate illegal Filipino workers who are caught. The Philippines is one of the few southeast Asian nations expected to grow in 1998, with the economy expanding by one percent, compared to declines of four percent in Malaysia, eight percent in Thailand and 15 percent in Indonesia.

The Malaysian government announced that Malaysians planning to marry foreigners can no longer register their marriages at religious or social organizations, only at state registration departments. The new restrictions are aimed at preventing "marriages of convenience," and reducing the number of divorced women who are reluctant to leave Malaysia because their children are Malaysian citizens.

Some 16,000 foreigners have became Malaysian citizens since 1991 and the number is rising since procedures were simplified. Many of those becoming Malaysian citizens are Chinese and Indians who were born in Malaysia.

The Malaysian minister for primary industries called on estate and plantation owners to mechanize to improve productivity and thereby raise wages for Malaysian estate and plantation workers. Wages for rubber tappers are currently M$300 to M$350 a month ($80 to $95), and M$1000 a month for oil palm harvesters

Productivity would increase if the rubber estates adopted a recently developed low-intensity tapping system, in which a rubber tree is tapped by hand only once every four or five days, instead of daily. The new tapping method requires the purchase of new tapping equipment to keep the latex flowing, but it permits one worker to cover many more rubber trees.

Geraldine Albela, "Estate owners urged to adopt newer methods," New Straits Times, November 23, 1998. S. Jayakrishnan, "Urgent need for clear and consistent policy on migrant, illegal labour," New Straits Times, November 3, 1998. Malaysian Sabah State Deports Illegal Immigrants," Asia Pulse, November 3, 1998. "140,000 Illegal Aliens Returned Under Amnesty," Asia Pulse, November 3, 1998. Choong Kwee Kim, "Stricter ruling on marrying foreigners," The Star, November 6, 1998. "Few more days to find way home," Devid Rajah, The Star, November 1, 1998. Zailani Ahmad, "Amnesty deadline extended, November 1, 1998. "96,000 Filipino Workers in Malaysia Face Deportation," Xinhua News Agency, October 31, 1998.