In Malaysia, illegal Indonesians need not apply

Since July, 360,000 migrant workers have fled Malaysia, fearing tough new laws.

Robertus Domingus shrugs when asked who he's angrier with: Malaysia, for forcing him to flee a job he held in that country for three years, or Indonesia, his native land, for doing so little to make it easier to find work at home.

"I want to work over there because the pay is a little better, but it's not as if I like it,'' says Mr. Domingus, squatting among a cluster of friends on a corner in Nunukan, a tumbledown Indonesian town on the border with the Malaysian state of Sabah. "People like me are left with no choice."

Domingus is one of an estimated 300,000 Indonesian and at least 60,000 Filipino workers who fled Malaysia at the end of July as new draconian laws came into effect mandating the caning and jailing of illegal workers.

The flight from the country has left tens of thousands in squalid camps on both sides of the border. In Nunukan, health officials say 72 refugees have died so far from ailments ranging from malaria to diarrhea.

The disorganized stampede spotlights a developing trend in a rapidly globalizing world: The migration of workers from very poor nations to wealthier, but still poor, neighbors. "I think most people would agree that this has been happening for a long time, but is also an increasing trend in the world,'' says Bruce Reed of the Philippine office of the International Organization for Migration. He estimates that in Asia, 2.6 million workers – about 50 percent of them from Southeast Asia – go abroad every year.

Souring relations

The deportation of many of these workers has cost Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines their good relations.

One Filipino senator called the treatment of Filipino workers abroad "ethnic cleansing.'' And Indonesian Parliament Speaker Amien Rais said Malaysia was treating Indonesians like "goats."

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar shot back that Mr. Rais "should bear responsibility for what is happening to his people, [because] a lot of people were thrown out of their jobs" due to economic policies Rais supported.

When Indonesia's economy collapsed in 1997, the number of job-seekers in Malaysia surged. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry estimates that before this summer's crackdown, there were probably 1 million Indonesians working in Malaysia, about half of them illegal. Because most did undesirable work, observers say the get-tough campaign was prompted, not by a desire to protect local jobs, but by fear of crime or disloyalty.

'Indonesians last'

Accusations that Indonesians head an Al Qaeda-linked terror network in Southeast Asia have also worked against Indonesian migrants in Malaysia and elsewhere. Last Friday, a Manila newspaper said the Philippines would expel 12,000 illegal Indonesian immigrants in the south of the country because they could be harboring terrorists.

For Malaysia, protests by Indonesian construction workers and a riot in a detention center over living and working conditions early this year seemed to be the last straw. Shortly after, the new laws were announced – at first targeting Indonesians by ordering employers to take an "Indonesians last" approach to hiring. Though Malaysia has since struck the discriminatory language from its laws, the harsh punishments for illegal foreign workers remain.

But the construction protests highlight one of the greatest dangers that faces workers as they cross the world's borders. In countries like Malaysia, illegal and legal migrant workers have even fewer protections against abuse than they do in countries like the US.

Aid workers have reported cases of women sold into prostitution in Malaysia, and the Philippine government is investigating allegations that a 13-year-old Filipina was recently raped by a Malaysian policeman.

In Nunukan, the wave of migrants out of Malaysia has crested. In mid-August, Indonesian officials said 25,000 refugee workers were on the island; since then, many have booked passage home by ferry. About 11,000 have found their way back to Malaysia with legal work permits.

Ashamed to go home

For Bernard Sinaga, a young Indonesian here, the crackdown is the end of a bitter and humbling journey. In a frayed sport coat, his long hair tucked into a red Yankees cap, Mr. Sinaga remembers his excitement when a labor agent told him that he'd found him a job at an electronics factory near the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Sinaga trusted the labor company, called PT Mega Untaya Sahaja, to arrange his passport, transport, and papers. But when he arrived in Sabah, he was told there'd been a change of plans. Instead of going on to Kuala Lumpur, he'd be staying in Sabah to work a plantation near the town of Sandakan.

"I was sold like a cow,'' says Sinaga. He says he was rarely paid, and that when he complained, he was beaten by an overseer who held his passport.

Now he's waiting to scratch together enough money to make his way back to Bandung. "I'm so ashamed,'' he says. "My mother still thinks I'm in Malaysia earning a good salary."

Mr. Domingus was never abused the way Mr. Sinaga was – but his is far from a success story. Working on the Tabung Hadji plantation with a crew of men from Flores, he earned a $115 a month for the back-breaking job of cutting and hauling ripe bunches of palm-fruit.

Domingus is now waiting for his former employer to arrange his legal return to Sabah, a trip that inspires some apprehension. "They know we're in a weak position now, so they're trying to get us to agree to worse pay – they say the price of palm oil has fallen.'' He's been told the cost for a passport and the processing of his work papers is $500 – a sum that will be deducted from his monthly salary.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Natalegawa says his country and Malaysia are now working on a new bilateral agreement on guest workers that will hopefully reduce tensions – and abuses – in the future. The agreement would set down agreed upon and transparent rules for migrant worker employers and agents to be enforced by both countries.

"The core reality is that Indonesians are going to keep seeking jobs in Malaysia and Malaysia will continue to need overseas workers,'' he says. "We should be able to find a way to satisfy these complementary needs while protecting the rights of our people.''

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