A child trafficking survivor’s plea to the U.K. government

Refugees risk being exploited and abused in Malaysia's food industry

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Law & Policy

Malaysian law does not recognize refugees so many are forced to work informally, thus running the risk of being subjected to exploitation. In a report by Al Jazeera, testimonies from refugees in Kuala Lumpur provide evidence of the situation.

Mirron (not her real name) arrived from Somalia in 2018 and had no knowledge of what it would mean to be a refugee in Malaysia. While waiting for the UN refugee agency UNHCR to offer her resettlement in a third country, she had to start working informally. She found a job as a waitress with a salary of 1,300 Malaysian ringgit ($296) per month for 72 hours of work per week. With no other alternative, she accepted. However, she was never paid. She told Al Jazeera:

“After the first month, they told me I had to work for another month to get paid because I’m still new. Then they said I should work for another month too. At that point I knew I was wasting my time as they wanted to exploit me more, so I left.”

Mirron is just one of the more than 182,000 refugees and asylum seekers – of whom more than 136,000 are over the age of 18 – who are in Malaysia under this status.

3D jobs: “difficult, dangerous and dirty”

Despite receiving so many people, Malaysia is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its Protocol and does not have an asylum system regulating the status and rights of refugees. In other words, local laws do not distinguish between refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants.

The legal disparity leaves refugees without the right to work or send their children to school and leaves them vulnerable to detention by authorities and exploitation by employers.

A 2019 study by the International Labor Organization highlighted the vulnerability of refugees and asylum seekers in the country: “The lack of legal protection gives rise to a widespread situation in which they are compelled to work illegally, and most of the jobs that they find are 3D jobs,” the study noted, referring to the type of “‘difficult, dangerous and dirty” work that Malaysians try to avoid.

Sivaranjani Manickam, community outreach director of refugee rights organization Asylum Access Malaysia, told Al Jazeera that exploitation occurs on a daily basis, especially in the food industry.

“70 percent of the employment disputes we receive are from the food industry, and 90 percent of them involve unpaid salaries, with other reports of unreasonable termination, sexual harassment and work injuries,” she said.

Unfulfilled promises from all political forces

In 2018, the Pakatan Harapan electoral alliance declared that “their labor rights will be at par with locals and this initiative will reduce the country’s need for foreign workers and lower the risk of refugees from becoming involved in criminal activities and underground economies.”

Pakatan won a historic election victory that year, but the plan was never implemented. The coalition that replaced Pakatan after an internal takeover carried out a series of initiatives but that did not lead to major transformations.  A committee was set up to study refugee labor, now headed by Human Resources Minister M Saravanan, who stated in March 2022 that the committee was developing guidelines to grant refugees the right to work in Malaysia, but he did not provide any clear timetable as to how long the process would take.

Yante Ismail, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Kuala Lumpur, stated that the organization “believes that a work scheme to allow genuine refugees the opportunity to work lawfully would provide a source of willing labor to support and contribute to the Malaysian economy.”

Refugees and migrants in Malaysia are exposed to high levels of vulnerability and violence by the state. The country has detention centers for illegal immigrants and does not allow UNHCR representatives to enter the facilities to determine those in need of international protection and thus advocate for their release.

In April 2022, more than 500 people belonging to the largely Muslim Rohingya minority who were persecuted in Myanmar escaped from one of these detention centers that are scattered throughout Malaysia. When they tried to quell the riot, the authorities killed six people, including two children. In response to this aberrant act, UNHCR said in a statement that “depriving people of their liberty to deter others from entering the country is illegal, inhumane and ineffective.”

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