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October 2002, Volume 9, Number 10

Southeast Asia

Malaysia. Malaysia began enforcing tougher immigration laws on August 1, 2000 that provide for fines of up to 10,000 ringgit ($1=3.80 ringgit), mandatory prison terms of up to five years and up to six strokes of the cane for unauthorized workers. Five unauthorized Burmese migrants in August 2002 were sentenced to six months in jail and four were caned for immigration violations; they were imprisoned in a prison building that they had helped to build.

There were protests in Indonesia and the Philippines as migrants awaiting removal from Malaysia died in detention camps due to inadequate water supplies and bad sanitation. At least three children were reported to have died during the recent deportation of about 12,000 Filipinos. After a call from the Philippines president in late August 2002, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad agreed to temporarily halt deportation of Filipino illegal migrants. On September 3, 2001, a Philippine inspector who had visited the detention camps where Filipinos were being held said that conditions were generally acceptable, but better care should be taken of the women and children.

Before the crackdown, the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research estimated that only 750,000 of two million foreign workers were legally registered. After the crackdown, builders complained of labor shortages- Indonesians were about 70 percent of construction workers and 80 percent of them were unauthorized. Malaysia is building a new capital in Putrajaya, 30km south of Kuala Lumpur, and construction firms there said that 40 percent of workers disappeared. In September 2001, the Malaysian government approved applications for 500,000 foreign workers to work in the construction industry.

Between August 1 and September 20, 2002, the Malaysian Home Ministry approved 1,293 applications involving 229,038 workers from Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Singapore has a higher percentage of foreigners than Malaysia does, 25 percent compared to nine percent , but half of the foreigners in Singapore are highly skilled or professional, while most of the foreigners in Malaysia are unskilled. However, Malaysia's National Vocational Training Council said it would certify 17,000 foreign workers from the manufacturing sector as skilled workers; once certified, foreign workers can remain in Malaysia for five years.

According to a ACNielsen poll in September 2002, 21 percent of Singaporeans, mainly professionals, are considering emigration because of high living costs and a stressful educational system for their children. Over half of the potential emigrants wanted to go to Australia and New Zealand.

Indonesia. The Indonesian government announced that it would include sanctions against people-smugglers in an immigration law currently being written. At present, illegal migrants face punishment if caught, but people-smugglers are not fined or jailed. The new law will include fines of between $30,000 to $151,000 for people-smugglers. Because of concern about terrorism, the Indonesian government is expected to go ahead with its controversial plan to abolish its visa-on-entry policy for nationals of 48 counties. The new policy may also make it harder for Afghanis and others to fly to Indonesia and board boats for Australia.

Indonesia and Malaysia continue to debate what to do about unauthorized Indonesian migrants. Indonesia says that, if Malaysia is going to crack down on illegal workers, it wants better conditions for legal guest workers, including a minimum wage. However, as Indonesians returned, many faced overcharges from agents and government officials as they sought contracts and passports to return legally to Malaysia. Department of Immigration officials denied that bribes have been demanded to speed up processing.

Indonesia became a leading producer of athletic shoes, garments, textiles and toys in the 1980s and early 1990s, most were exported to the industrial countries. About half of the shoes produced in Indonesia are for Nike which, after the 1997 financial crisis and continued unrest, began to shift production to China and Vietnam. Labor-intensive export industries have been credited with helping Indonesia to create good jobs, especially for women. However, unrest and rising wages encouraged some investors to relocate jobs to China, Vietnam and Burma, where wages are lower and there is more stability. Shoe production is often seen as the first step up the economic development ladder; it moved from Japan in the 1960s to Korea and Taiwan in the 1970s to China and Indonesia in the 1980s. Economists warn that Indonesia risks "Philippinization," losing labor-intensive export industries to cheaper countries, and having no replacement industries providing jobs, so that workers have to seek jobs abroad.

Thailand. The Labor Ministry is distributing handbooks to registered foreign workers, informing them of their rights and welfare entitlements, including health insurance, overtime, the number of holidays they are eligible for and laws governing labor safety.

There are about 100,000 Thai workers in Taiwan. The governments of the two countries signed an agreement in August 2002 to reduce the fees that the migrants have to pay brokers, currently about 200,000 baht ($8,300).

Bangkok police arrested at least 100 Africans for immigration offenses in mid-September 2001 because of concern about an increase in crime by foreign gangs. Those arrested were from Malawi, Guinea, Gambia, Liberia, Congo, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon and Lesotho. Most were overstaying their visas or had false passports.

Malaysia and Thailand agreed on September 18, 2001 to step up patrols to stop militants with possible links to al Qaeda from crossing their borders. Malaysian armed forces chief General Mohamad Zahidi Zainuddin told reporters that Malaysian and Thai troops would coordinate patrols and hold exercises aimed at tightening border security.

Philippines. Labor Undersecretary Lucita Lazo, head of the newly created Office of Reintegration of Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs), says that most returning migrants bring relatively few savings with them when they return, and that "one of the big holes in the OFW program of the government is reintegration." Several NGOs, including Unlad Kabayan (Develop Countrymen), are pushing for what UK calls Migrant Savings Alternative Investment (MSAI) to create jobs in the migrants' areas of origin.

The Philippine government has a target to deploy one million migrants overseas in 2002, and is confident that it will reach its target. In 2001, about 866,000 Filipino migrants were hired or rehired overseas; they represented about a third of the annual 2.5 million Asians who migrate abroad for jobs each year. A radio program 'Babaeng Migrante, May Kakampi Ka' (Women Migrant, You have an Ally) airs weekly discussing issues relevant to women thinking of emigrating.

In 2001, some 14,000 Filipino nurses went abroad, but only 6,000 graduated from Filipino nursing schools.

There may be a wave of returning migrants, as Malaysia, Italy, Israel, and other countries crack down on unauthorized workers, including Filipinos. According to the government, there are 7.6 million Filipinos working in 150 countries, and they remit $7 billion a year-the government includes, for example, the one million Filipino immigrants and their US-born children in the total. The government estimates that 1.6 million of these "migrants," or 21 percent, are unauthorized.

The Union of Filipino Overseas Contract Workers (OCW-Unifil), representing 38,000 OFW families, urged the government to implement the Magna Carta for OFWs, RA 8042 of 1995, by deregulating emigration, thus allowing Filipinos to compete more effectively for overseas jobs.

Vietnam. The Vietnamese government plans to increase the number of Vietnamese laborers working abroad to 500,000 and hopes that by 2005 the country will thereby earn $2 to 2.5 billion annually from labor exports. In order to meet this goal, the government plans to provide vocational training and foreign language training to potential migrants. There are 159 companies licensed as labor exporters and 140 of them are state-owned.

Marites Sison, "Philippines: Returning Emigres Find Prospects Bleak," Inter Press Service, October 2, 2002. Muhammad Nafik, "Visa policy change to go ahead despite criticism, minister says," Jakarta Post, September 23, 2002. "Malaysia upgrades deportation facilities after protests," Agence France Presse, September 20, 2002. "500,000 Workers to Go Abroad by 2005," Asia/Africa Intelligence Wire, September 18, 2002. "People-smuggling sanction plan," The Australian, September 18, 2002. Nick Leong, "Deportations should not be sensationalized," The Star, September 14, 2002. Patrick Mcdowell, "Expulsion of illegal migrants leaves hold in Malaysian economy," Associated Press, September 13, 2002