Interview of Sumitha Kishna in GFMD Civil Society Program
Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna

“We Must Get Rid of the Idea That Migrant Workers Steal Our Jobs” – A Malaysian View on Labor Migration

Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, from the Malaysian NGO ‘Our journey,’ is a practicing lawyer who provides legal representation for migrants and refugees in labor, immigration and criminal cases. She also takes up human trafficking cases, rescues trafficked persons and carries out advocacy with the government. Ms. Kishna is the current Chairperson of   Migrant Forum Asia (MFA), a regional network of non-governmental organizations, associations and trade unions of migrant workers as well as individual advocates who protect and promote the rights and welfare of migrant workers. In the following interview, she discusses the main issues for migrant workers in Malaysia and the region.

Which are the most crucial issues related to migration and development in Malaysia?

[Sumitha Kishna] The biggest issue is undocumented migrant workers. There are about two million documented workers and an equal number of undocumented workers in the country. There have been many amnesties, but a proper solution to manage the irregularity in which so many workers find themselves has not yet been found.

The presence of such a high number of undocumented workers leads to problems of exploitation and access to services such as health care. This is not to say that documented workers do not face any problems, but people in an irregular situation are even more vulnerable to exploitation.

Why are so many migrant workers undocumented?

There are several reasons. In Malaysia, the migration portfolio is the responsibility of the Home Affairs Ministry, not of the Human Resources Ministry – even for labor migration. So there is a mismatch between the market’s need for foreign labor and the number of workers that the government allows to enter the country.

As a result, there are many agents and recruitment agencies who bring in workers on tourist visas because they are relatively easy to obtain. However, those visas cannot be changed for a work permit, so the migrant workers find themselves in this situation where they cannot do anything. They are cheated, basically. They work as undocumented and they become vulnerable to arrest and detention.

Another problem is that when authorities arrest a migrant, they don’t arrest the employer, so the cycle just carries on. If a worker is deported, it is very easy to find someone else to take their place. Implementation of the laws and monitoring of their enforcement is poor.

What type of work are you and other civil society organizations in Malaysia doing to address these issues?

When I have a case of an undocumented worker, I speak with their employer to try to get their salaries and passport back – many times both are withheld to keep the workers in an even more vulnerable position –  to help them get back home. I cannot file a case on their behalf precisely because they are undocumented, so this is what I do instead. At the same time as I talk to the employers, I report them to the Ministry so that they are aware of their illegal practices.

In the future, if that same employer wants to recruit workers again, they will be questioned, put under scrutiny. This is actually a useful strategy, because we have already seen that some of the employers who have been reported are not allowed to recruit migrant workers anymore as they have to obtain approval from the Ministry to recruit workers.

Sometimes the Ministry, upon being informed of illegal practices, conducts inspection visits to the employer. Inspectors show up and if they find undocumented workers on the premises, this employer will automatically go onto a blacklist and will not be allowed to recruit foreign workers in the future. Unfortunately the downside to this is that the undocumented workers found on the premises will be arrested and deported.

Have you seen an improvement of the situation over the last few years?

Absolutely. The situation is now much better than it was 10 years ago. We see more cases being reported, not because there is more exploitation but because more workers report the abuse. Some of my cases are actually people who have been in the country for a very long time already, up to 15, 20 years. They seem to have the courage to come out and report their employer now. We have conducted a lot of outreach in the community and it seems to have paid off.

Why is labor migration an important issue?

Labor migration is important because there are a number of jobs that nationals of a given country do not want to do anymore and that is completely alright, it is just how things go. But because locals do not want to do these jobs – be it in the service sector, or construction or agriculture – labor migration is absolutely necessary, it fills the gap. We must get rid of the idea that migrant workers steal our jobs.

Migrant workers do not steal anyone’s jobs, because those jobs are not filled by others. This is an area where we must do a lot of work: to convince the local population that we need to live together, because migrant workers are here to stay. And at the end of the day, historically, all of us were migrants in one way or another.

If the locals could embrace this kind of thinking, it would be very beneficial to the country. Migrants contribute to the economy and the development of the country and that is something that everybody should acknowledge.

How has the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration impacted your work?

The Malaysian government has adopted the GCM, so for me, it has been a very positive instrument, especially for advocacy purposes. The GCM has spelled out what we have always been advocating for, so when we talk to the government, we can use it as a reference document. We do not have to reinvent the wheel; we can simply use the GCM and especially, its recommendations. Our government has been quite receptive but has not implemented anything yet, so it is a good time for us to push the government to do something concrete about the GCM.

What is for you the value of participating in the GFMD Summit and what are your suggestions for its future?

This Summit has been very interactive. We were able to share a lot during the Civil Society Day and we learned a lot from groups in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East. We had especially good exchanges with colleagues from the Middle East, since labor migration is so often a cross-border issue. We were able to explain to each other why certain policies are in place and why they do or do not work.

The Common Space was also good, although not many governments were present in the room; that was its only downside. Most of the people at the table during the Common Space were from civil society organizations and government representatives would just pop in and out for a moment.

I would like to see more commitment from governments to attend the sessions and to be there at the tables, having a more inclusive dialogue with civil society. And not just at the GFMD, but also back home. Sometimes you only meet your country’s government representatives at the GFMD and that is not fair. I would like governments which have not made efforts to meet civil society representatives to start a dialogue in their country already, start preparing together maybe. The dialogue with your respective government should happen at the national level before you come to the global level.

What is your main take-away from this year’s GFMD Summit?

Definitely the recommendations. There was a lot of emphasis on partnerships and that is something that we can do much better in Malaysia. We do work well with the government, but it is not an institutionalized way of working. We need a more stable, institutionalized relationship with our government which does not rely on their good will. This partnership approach and how to create a better partnership mechanism – that is something I am taking away from Quito.

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