Malaysia is home to around 500,000 Burmese migrants, less than half of whom have been registered and thus hold a semblance of legal status in the country. Employers of migrant workers are often accused of exploiting their fragile existence in the country for their own gain, paying meagre wages and meting out abuse in the workplace. Tun Tun heads the Burma Campaign Malaysia (BCM), which campaigns for migrant workers’ rights.
How and why did you come to Malaysia?
I have been here for 17 years. I came because I was a student at Mandalay University and was involved in politics, and got in trouble so fled and became a migrant worker myself.
Following the case of 35 migrant workers who were arrested for asking for their contracts to be upheld, why did the police just end up targeting the five leaders?
In my experience in all the cases they always target the leaders. They think if they find and target the leaders the case will be settled, to scare the other workers.
What’s the relationship between the employers and the police?
That is a major concern here. All workers cannot speak out to the police. The police don’t understand the workers explanations. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that most of the law enforcement agencies here, whenever the local Malaysian people complain to them, they always take action against the foreigners – that is a problem. This was a labour dispute – it should have been dealt with in a labour court – but they never use this channel. They just use the police; they just arrive and arrest them and transfer them to immigration who deport them. It’s very easy for the employer and safe for the employer, so a lot of them use this channel.
How often do employers take workers documents?
According to Malaysian law, employers can’t keep workers’ documents, but the immigration department or police never take action against the employers. They all know that they keep the workers’ documents but do nothing. The Sinometal Technology Company took all their documents.
How do you advise migrant workers in Malaysia?
Wherever you go to work you can’t get good wages and you are not safe if you don’t keep your documents. Because you are not skilled, the employers will pay you around 700 to 800 [Malaysia Ringgit – $US230-260], so please don’t run away – if you don’t follow the contract we can’t help you.
How many illegal Burmese migrant workers do you think there are in Malaysia?
I think there are about 200,000 illegal Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia. The majority are men, very few women. They do various kinds of work – in restaurants, engineering, production, and so on.
Why do you advise them to keep hold of their documents?
The first thing is the levy. The Malaysian government charges employers a levy for employing foreign workers. Employers regularly deduct this fee from their workers’ salaries. However as of 1 April 2009 the Malaysian government announced that the employer cannot deduct the levy charge from the workers, but 90 percent of employers don’t follow this government order – they just deduct it. I had a case on 11 January where I complained about levy deduction from a workers’ leader named Hla Min, a Burmese migrant who works for DW Plastics Ltd, who complained for all workers when a total of 48,000 ringgits ($US15,730) was deducted.
Did he get in trouble?
No. They had no other problem apart from the levy. They wanted the employer to refund their money, so I went to the labour department and reported for them. In a month the employer will refund their money.
What happens when a worker is detained for not having the right documents?
Well, in Malaysia, if an Indonesian is detained they can get a travel document for 15 ringgits ($US5) per person and then they have to go back by boat or air. For our Burmese people, they have to pay their embassy 550 ringgits ($US180), or 900 ringgits ($US295). If you pay 500 ringgits you stay a very long time in the camp; if you pay 900 you get a fast process. Now workers are facing more problems because the Burmese government has introduced a new passport, so all the workers have to go the embassy and pay 4,000 ringgits ($US1310) per person, a very high price.
Why does the Malaysian government have these levies?
They want to reduce the number of migrant workers. They are facing a lot of social problems – they think it’s the migrant workers fault but it is not true. The Malaysian government is a pro-employer government; most of the politicians are nationalists, and that is a problem.
How is the experience of Malaysia different for different Burmese ethnic groups?
In Malaysia there are over 40 different ethnic organisations. Most are dedicated to registering refugees – in my experience they don’t concentrate on workers rights. I’m very sad about this.
How would you describe the UN High Commissioner for Refugee’s work for refugees here?
Every organisation is based on its members. Many of the ethnic organisations have good relations with UNHCR, but the UNHCR are also involved in a lot of corruption, particularly with registration of refugees and with resettlement.
How does it work with resettlement?
Three months ago, UNHCR resettled someone to New Zealand. The New Zealand authorities checked her biography and UNHCR had given a different biography, so the New Zealand authorities didn’t let her out of their camp. So it is very clear that it was a substitution for someone who is still here
Why? Did she pay UNHCR?
I think so, because at that time, one of my colleagues was resettled and he met this girl in the resettlement camp and he informed me.
How do migrants contact you?
We publish a newsletter in peninsula Malaysia. In this newsletter we have one article about migrants rights in Malaysia with our hotline number, so when they have a problem they contact us. We send the newsletter to Burmese shops around peninsula Malaysia and the shopkeeper sells it to migrant workers. It has no adverts and it is non-profit.
How difficult is it for migrant workers to access their legal rights?
I was also a migrant worker five years ago. My employer violated the law all the time. I knew he was wrong but I couldn’t point out correctly. So whatever the employer said to us, he was right. So I wanted to know the migrant rights in Malaysia and tell all our migrant workers because if they knew about this then they can demand it [their rights]. So I tried to translate the migrants rights into Burmese and distribute it.
How has it changed things?
It has had a good effect, because we put here that the employer cannot deduct levies, and that they can contact us or the trade union congress whenever. So after the workers read this they know the employers are wrong and they contact us and work out how they can get it refunded.
In Malaysia migrant workers will get injured or have health problems. What is access to healthcare like in Malaysia?
Whenever a Malaysian goes to hospital, they have to pay one ringgit ($US0.30) for registration. For the migrant worker it is 15 ringgit ($US5) for registration. After we pay the 15 ringgit the doctor puts you in a check room and then he tells us what we need [financially], and then we pay a deposit. If they can’t pay, then a there’s a problem. They have to borrow to pay the deposit of, say, 500 ringgits ($US163). This is discrimination against migrants. It is not only in hospitals, it is in all government agencies – for example, if a migrant wants to open a bank account they cannot freely open an account; they need an employer recommendation letter, while for local people no letter is needed.
Are migrant workers dependent upon employers, and why is this system in place?
According to Malaysian immigration law employers are responsible for their migrant workers. For example when a visitor comes they show their passport and can enter Malaysia, but when a migrant worker arrives they are not allowed to leave the airport until their employer arrives to pick them up. Moreover, we receive a lot of complaints about working conditions for migrant workers. They are abused physically and mentally.