There is one issue you will hardly hear about in the Permatang Pauh by-election campaign – even thought it affects one in three workers in the country.
Now, why would politicians who are desperate for votes ignore the concerns of one in three workers?
Perhaps it’s because when we talk about workers, we rarely think of the migrant workers in the country. Yes, one out of every three workers in the country is a migrant worker.
For the last two days I have been in Shah Alam attending a National Consultation on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers organised by Tenaganita, the Bar Council, Aliran and Caram Asia.
I thought this often neglected issue was important enough to take a break from the flurry of activity in Permatang Pauh.
One of the main concerns is that employers or agents often hold the passports of migrant workers – in violation of the Passports Act. This allows them near total control of the workers.
Another serious concern is the denial of their right to join trade unions. A senior official from the Human Resources Ministry told the participants that there is nothing to stop migrant workers from joining trade unions. As far as the Ministry is concerned, the law does not stop them from joining trade unions.
But then, works permits and employment contracts often carry a clause barring migrant workers from joining persatuan (associations), which includes kesatuan (trade unions). Apparently, such clauses stem from a Home Ministry policy.
So the question is which has greater legal force: the law of the land or a Home Ministry policy?
Much abuse also occurs when outsourcing firms bring in workers into the country. A lot of money is at stake in bringing in these workers. But often the poor workers end up stranded without proper jobs in the country.
Unfortunately, not many politicians, including parliamentarians, care about the plight of migrant workers. Why is that?
Fong Po Kuan, the rare MP who made space in her busy schedule to attend the entire two-day consultation, knows the reason. “It’s because migrant workers do not carry any votes. Therefore many politicians, who might otherwise be interested in defending human rights, are not interested in these workers.”
Her concern for migrant workers and her willingness to admit that she has a lot more to learn about the issue impressed many of the participants. In her, the migrant workers have a friend in Parliament.
The other MP who spoke at the forum was R Sivarasa, a long-time human rights activist.
As for the MTUC, it has come a long way. Under the leadership of Syed Shahir, the umbrella body of trade unions has moved from an anti-migrant workers stance to one that considers migrant workers as workers too.
With more people getting involved in the cause, there is hope yet that we can do something to protect the rights of migrant workers and grant them the same rights as Malaysian workers.