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IWD 2017: Women migrant workers in Malaysia


Happy International Women’s Day.

In my International Women’s Day message last year, I urged the government to redirect subsidy for migrant workers to empower Malaysian women in the economy, including expanding our workforce instead of hiring migrant workers, increasing female labour participation rate, as well as providing better social security for housewives.

For years, I have spoken both inside and outside of Parliament on how these measures are crucial to our society.

This year, however, I want to focus my message on a group of women in Malaysia, whom we see but rarely notice, whom we hear off, but rarely hear out: women migrant workers.

There are about 2 million documented migrant workers in Malaysia, another 2 million undocumented migrants, most of them doing some forms of work to make a living. In other words, at least 2 in 10 persons in Malaysia are migrants. Documented migrant workers alone make up about 16% of our total population; more than the Indian, Kadazan, and Iban population in this country put together.

According to a 2015 World Bank report, three quarters of all jobs in Malaysia are still at the low- and mid-skilled range. Due to the higher educational attainments of Malaysians and thus our aspirations for higher skilled jobs, the economy requires migrant workers to fill the workforce gaps.

No. Country Male Female Total
1 Indonesia 546,337 273,436 819,773
2 Nepal 468,687 15,221 483,908
3 Bangladesh 271,197 839 272,036
4 Myanmar 120,476 23,147 143,623
5 India 133,471 2,450 135,921
Total 1,540,168 315,093 1,855,261

(Source: Home Minister’s parliamentary answer to MP for Indera Mahkota on 17 Mac 2016)

Within the five highest highest number of migrant workers according to nationalities, women migrant workers constituted about 20% (315,093) out of 1.9 million people.

In the largest group, Indonesian women made up more than 33% among Indonesian migrants workers. More than a third of them are domestic workers.

Here in Malaysia, only women can apply to be foreign domestic workers (Pembantu Rumania Asing). According to the Home Ministry, in 2016, there were 136,213 foreign domestic workers in Malaysia, with 96% of them coming from Indonesia (93,098), and the Philippines (37,550).

Contribution of migrant workers cannot be denied

I have written elsewhere about the problems in our immigration policy. But these problems are not because Malaysia does not need migrant workers. On the contrary, these problems are due to the lack of strategy by the government to fully utilise our workforce and to tap into the global workforce.

Several recent studies have shown the positive impact of migrant workers to our economy. (See, Malaysia Economic Monitor December 2015, World Bank)

Foreign domestic workers enable Malaysian women to return to the job market and spend more time at work. Studies have consistently shown how the availability of migrant domestic workers helped to increase female labour participation rate, even in Malaysia.

The impact of migrant workers on local women’s employment varies across different sectors, e.g having a negative impact on jobs for women in the manufacturing industry while positive impact on jobs for women in the services industry, “especially in finance, business and real estate, insurance, health and other high value-added services”. Nevertheless, the overall effect of migrant workers on women’s employment is positive: “for every 1000 immigrants in the economy, 235 jobs are created for women, 80 of them part-time.” (See, Malaysia Economic Monitor, November 2012, World Bank)

Migrant workers have no country

The workers have no country, so goes the old saying. This is even truer for migrant workers because not only they are strangers in their host country where they seek employment, but more often than not, they receive little or no protection from their home country as well.

Female migrant workers in Malaysia face a myriad of challenges and problems.

The US Dept of State Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports throughout the years have highlighted that migrant workers in Malaysia are “subjected to forced labor or debt bondage by their employers, employment agents, or informal labor recruiters…have heightened vulnerabilities to exploitative labor conditions and reduced ability to resolve disputes.”

Physical abuse, especially on female migrant workers, are also common. While several high profile cases were reported in the news, and the perpetrators, often employers, arrested and sentenced, many others suffer in silence without recourse.

The occurrences of abuse were so bad that Indonesia (2009) and Cambodia (2011) actually issued a moratorium on sending their female citizens to Malaysia as domestic workers. These moratorium were eventually lifted. However, the 2016 TIP Report stated that, “Cambodian women remain subjected to domestic servitude.”

These are only tip of the iceberg. Female migrants are also reported to have become victims of human trafficking, forced sex trade and brokered marriages. Female undocumented migrants are subjected to bullying by both the authorities as well as unscrupulous parties taking advantage of their lack of legal status. Many of them had to seek work under terrible conditions, and as mentioned, eventually become victims of forced labour.

Women migrant workers are forced to leave behind their family and loved ones in order to provide a better life for them by seeking employment in Malaysia. They, along with other migrant workers, are structurally integral to the Malaysian economy whether we like it or not. They are vulnerable in that being foreigners, social and economic problems in the country are easily blamed on them. They are vulnerable because lacking protection of the law, whether of their host country or their home country, they are subjected to all sorts of bullying. They are vulnerable because in our patriarchal culture, when even Malaysian women are faced with discrimination everyday and everywhere, they being migrant women will taste double and triple dose of that old poison of bigotry.

Women and men of conscience, arise. We have only each other to depend on. No social equality without gender equality, no gender equality without equality for all women and men regardless of age, race, religion and nationality.

Steven Sim Chee Keong



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