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September 1999, Volume 6, Number 9

Thailand, Malaysia: Foreign Workers

The governments of Thailand and Malaysia have each granted temporary work permits to those unauthorized foreign workers who have passed medical tests and whose employers paid special taxes or levies. Now that the temporary permits are nearing expiration, employers are protesting that they will be unable to operate without their foreign workers. In response to such employer complaints, the deadlines have already been moved forward several times. The period before each extension is accompanied by uncertainty for workers and their employers.

In Thailand, as the August 4, 1999 deadline for ending work permits issued to unauthorized workers approached, the government relented, extending the deadline for three more months for 86,000 foreign workers in 18 industries in 37 provinces. On August 19, PIE Healthcare in Senawang was fined RM320,000 for hiring 32 illegal Nepali workers. The workers were discovered during a document check at the factory by a state immigration enforcement team.

In the Thai border district of Maesot, Myanmarese migrants went on strike to protest low wages and poor working conditions. Fupo Knitting 1999 employs 800 Myanmarese women for 70 baht or $2 a day, half the local minimum wage of 130 baht. Some 100,000 Myanmarese migrants are thought to be in Maesot.

In Malaysia, about 210,000 foreign workers were registered by their employers before the August 15, 1999 deadline; the government believes that there are at least another 136,000 foreign workers on plantations who are not registered. Employers who fail to register their foreign workers are liable for fines of RM10,000 or five-years imprisonment, and the Malaysian government stages raids periodically to show that it is enforcing employer sanctions. In August 1999, Malaysia threatened door-to-door searches for unauthorized migrants.

The governments of Malaysia and Indonesia reached an agreement on August 26,1999 to permit semi-skilled and skilled workers (not just unskilled workers) to migrate from Indonesia to Malaysia. The migration is to be "orderly," but there were no other details of the new guest worker program.

"Malaysian, Indonesian Prime Ministers Discuss Migrant Trade," Utusan Malaysia, August 26, 1999. "RM320,000 fine for hiring illegals, New Straits Times, August 19, 1999. Thanam Visvanathan, "A relief to see authorities making a stand on illegal immigrants," New Straits Times, August 16, 1999. Sim Bak Heng, "Second chance for illegal workers in plantations," New Straits Times, August 9, 1999.