Malaysia's tough new laws aimed at curbing influxes of illegal immigrants have prompted hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers to exit the country, but domestic labor needs and souring relations with neighboring states have already prompted conciliatory changes.
The new laws provide for the caning and deportation of undocumented workers and the imprisonment of their employers. As many as 300,000 workers left Malaysia in the lead-up to the laws' introduction at the beginning of August, and in subsequent weeks, a further 100,000 followed.
The immediate government explanation for the most recent crackdown was concerns about possible involvement of undocumented workers in the drug trade and other criminal activities. However, local human rights groups also cite the slowdown in the economy and concerns about possible terrorist connections with Muslim fundamentalists as factors encouraging this latest effort to control the use of foreign labor.
These actions are but the latest in a periodic pattern of crackdowns on the undocumented foreign workers who have played an important part in Malaysia's economic growth since the 1970s. As Malaysian rural workers moved to expanding urban areas in that decade, the economy became dependent on migrant labor to fill jobs on plantations, and later in the construction, manufacturing, and service sectors. By 2001, foreign workers made up 20 percent of Malaysia's workforce. In November 2001, 1.1 million migrant workers had legal work permits. Even more, however, were undocumented migrants.
Lawmakers' recent attempts to curb this heavy dependence on foreign labor have strained both the business community and Malaysia's ties with neighboring countries, spurring authorities to retreat from some aspects of their hard line.
Within a month of the introduction of the laws, the government was already counting the cost. For example, the Malaysian construction industry, alarmed by provisions for the immediate deportation of the undocumented and a freeze on new legal work contracts, called for measures to allow the replacement of their departed workers. This led the government to partially back down. Legal work permits for migrant construction workers were reinstated.
The new laws have also soured Malaysia's relations with neighbouring Indonesia and the Philippines. In Indonesia, the major source of Malaysia's undocumented workers, local authorities have been struggling to provide food, transport, and shelter for the hundreds of thousands of returnees. And following claims of harsh treatment and even deaths among Filipinos awaiting deportation in the Malaysian state of Sabah, the president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, made a personal appeal to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad for improved conditions. Within a week, press reports of the rape of a Filipino girl by Malaysian police had led her to make a second call to Mahatir, who announced a moratorium on the arrest and deportation of Filipinos and an inquiry into the rape allegations.
As crowds rioted in Jakarta and Manila, old enmities were reignited. An Indonesian group called for a return to military confrontation with Malaysia, which last happened between 1963 and 1966 when Malaysia gained independence from Britain. In the Philippines, government representatives responded to popular pressure to revive the Philippines' long-standing claim to Sabah by referring the matter to the Legislative and Executive Development Advisory Council for a decision on a course of action.
How Malaysia will manage in the longer term to balance the economy's extensive reliance on foreign labor with domestic and international objectives remains a major dilemma. Malaysia's course is also made more complicated by uncertainty over the cooperative management of labor flows in the region. Unlike the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have not ratified the United Nation's International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Without a regional agreement among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries on labor migration, conflicts of the present kind are likely to continue.