Labouring Situations and Protection among Foreign Workers in Malaysia


In normal days, low- to medium-skilled foreign workers in Southeast Asia often experience various forms of discrimination, let alone in times of COVID-19 pandemic. Such a situation has shown that Southeast Asian countries are not ready yet for cross-border people’s mobility. The various lockdown policies have affected many countries’ economy. Yet, instead of accepting the fact that lockdown has ejected some businesses from the regular economic cycle, people in some migrant-receiving countries have begun to throw the blame on foreign workers.

Foreign workers
Teaser Image Caption
Three female foreign workers from Indonesia taking a break to check their phones off-work at a nearby hi-tech factory in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia

As a result, foreign workers who have been taking precarious works must endure another challenge, such as being the target of xenophobia. Not only them, but civil society groups who fight for labourers’ rights have also become the target of inflammatory remarks by their fellow nationals. By using the case of Malaysia, one of the largest hosts of migrants in East Asia, I argue that not only during the pandemic but also in general, foreign workers continue to face precarity. However, amidst this precarity, South-South Migration has also witnessed stronger solidarity among foreign workers which entails ‘organic protection’ among themselves.

Background Situation in Malaysia

Malaysia is home to about 3 millions foreign workers, which made Malaysia the sixth-largest migrant-receiving countries in East Asia according to the World Bank’s estimate. For the legal employment alone (calculated using the ‘Temporary Employment Visit Pass’ that the immigration department issued in 2014), Indonesian workers constitute the majority (39%), followed by Nepali workers (24%), Bangladeshi workers (14%), and the rest are combined from many other countries. Foreign low-to-medium skilled workers are hired in six sectors namely construction, services, plantation, agriculture, manufacturing, and domestic work.

Such numbers, however, are subject to debates since many have speculated that there might be more of uncounted irregular migrants residing in Malaysia. In an attempt to end this speculation, in 2019 the World Bank has conducted a systematic calculation on foreign workers in Malaysia, based on which it argues that there were 1.2-1.4 million of irregular migrants out of 3 million foreign workers (World Bank 2019).

The presence of irregular migrants in Malaysia is often situated in the nexus between economy and politics. In an economic context, lower to medium-skilled workers have been the most appealing labour force for Malaysian employers since the 1970s. In a situation where such employment opportunities were not attractive to locals, Malaysian business society had normally turned to foreign workers. This situation led to almost two decades of unregulated migration practice, which had rendered, for instance, Indonesia-Malaysia a regular corridor for irregular migration. 

Yet, politically, the high demand for foreign low-to-medium skilled workers has inspired populist claim which considers foreign workers the new social-economic threat for the host society (Kassim 1997). In response to the populist campaign against foreign labourers, local authorities have been ‘securitizing’ the inflow of foreign workers since late 1991 by imposing stronger immigration and policing practice against irregular migrants (Kudo 2016). The government has also attempted to regularize the irregular migrants as a ‘third-way’ to balance both politics and economic aspects. The ongoing “bargaining” between these two aspects in Malaysia has produced rather erratic migration management for foreign workers (Devadason and Meng 2014).

As the Covid-19 became pandemic, foreign workers again become the target of blame. The most rational claim among the populists is that foreign workers have discouraged job-creation for locals. However, such a claim is inaccurate. World Bank’s survey in 2015 has indicated that the employment of foreign workers in Malaysia has contributed to creating more mid- to high-skilled jobs for locals rather than losing them (World Bank 2015: 28-30). Besides, the World Bank also estimated that for every 10 per cent increase in numbers of foreign workers inflow, the Malaysian economy would benefit a 1.1 per cent increase in its GDP (p. 39).

Workers in Malaysia
A group of young women migrant workers make their way through a labyrinth of back alleys to get to work at a nearby hi-tech factory facility where they are employed from 7pm-7am daily, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, Tuesday 28 November, 2017

However, the economy is not always the reason for people to migrate. Migration is also about a path-dependency for ones’ life. In some regions where traditions and rituals are highly practised such as in West Sumatera, Madura, East Lombok, or in East Nusa Tenggara Province, all of which in Indonesia, migration is often part of their ways to demonstrate ‘maturity’ and ways to educate the youth through being sojourners.

As a result, foreign workers often maintain different worldviews regarding working conditions. Foreign workers such as expatriates, construction workers, or domestic workers may consider the term ‘safe work’ and ‘safe migration’ differently. For expatriates, ‘safe work’ would involve a series of formal residency procedure which include insurance, address, financial guarantee, and a clear working contract. The completion of this procedure would help people to make migration decision. In contrast to the ways expatriates prepare migration, foreign low-skilled workers do not see the importance of such things. Ones tend to see that opportunity to earn an income is enough to make migration decision. Unfortunately, employers and migration pundits often misread this attitude as ‘loyalty’ (Pillai 1998; Kassim 1987), while we should otherwise understand it as their cluelessness about their rights as a worker.

Even without Covid-19, foreign workers including refugees have endured enough precarity. This is because they often undertake too many ‘informalities’ and alienation in their residency and working practices, which lead to various forms of abuse and restriction such as overtime work, unpaid wage, and the withholding of essential documents such as passports (Devadason and Meng 2014: 30). Some domestic workers even experienced severe persecutions such as Nirmala Bonat and Adelina, to name a few.

Protection as the new policing measure

Migrant-sending countries’ governments, such as in Indonesia and the Philippines, have been experimenting to produce measures that can best protect workers from exploitations. However, this is not as easy as it looks. The government often faces two problems. First, they face the ‘lack of jurisdiction’ (Ball and Piper 2002). No matter how good their systems are to support workers, once workers are already in the worksites, it is up to their employers. Sometimes, even the host government’s law cannot “touch” what is going on in a domestic setting. Second, assume that the government could reach out to workers of its nationality, they often face the problem of policy implementation. The more bureaucracy is created, the longer the service will become. As a result, they often experience difficulties to put policy into practices. 

Because of the high complexity in foreign workers labouring conditions, the best way to protect them from exploitation is always through self-protection. To implement this protection, for instance, the Indonesian government has conducted self-protection education through the worker’s pre-departure orientation training (Chang, 2018). However, such an effort has witnessed fundamental ineffectiveness as situations in the workplace is often unpredictable. Next to that, the self-protection strategy has entailed nothing but the inculcation of submissive behaviour of the workers to employers with a bias work-ethic. Besides, training facilitators often ask workers to embrace strong mentality ready to counter abusive labouring condition (Chang 2018: 707-08).

Another effort, especially the moratorium on the recruitment of domestic workers that the Indonesian government has imposed several times rather encouraged the development of clandestine recruitment channels which made migration even more difficult to monitor. The moratorium has also caused difficulties in recruiting domestic workers, which in turn have also raised the cost of recruiting Indonesian domestic workers.

Costly recruitment has also changed the attitude of Malaysian employers. First, the Malaysian government has initiated the use of ‘Maid Online’, an online direct employment platform, to cut the cost of recruitment which unintentionally has encouraged illegal travel from the Indonesian side. According to Indonesian law, the recruitment of domestic workers is still to be facilitated by authorized foreign workers’ recruitment agents in Indonesia. Second, the Malaysian government is trying to recruit workers from the direct neighbouring countries, such as Timor Leste and Thailand as a substitute to the Indonesian workers.

Forms of organic protection in Malaysia

Aside from creating more job opportunities in sending-countries, there are, however, forms of community self-protection. I would call this as ‘organic protection’. Organic protection arose from the shared awareness among migrants regarding, at least, their well-being at work. In Hong Kong, for instance, we have witnessed the formation of many transnational migrant associations, or even unions, which play an essential role in both providing grassroots supports and advocating workers’ rights.

Such formations can either be internally or externally induced association. In the case of the Filipina workers, the transnational networks of union organizations from home-country has affected the emergence of migrant associations in the migrant-receiving country. Aside from Unifil (United Filipinos in Hong Kong), the association of Filipino domestic workers also exists in Malaysia called AMMPO-SENTRO.  

In Malaysia, many migrant communities have also increasingly come to adopt such an awareness which manifests itself in many forms of activities that aim at providing social support to other migrants. Migrant communities/associations often set to establish themselves in response to the plight that their fellow workers have experienced. They wish to manage the damage caused by exploitations and abuses during labouring. In the case of the Indonesian community, there is, for instance, Komunitas Serantau, which facilitate adaptation and redress for workers.

Workers Affiliated with Komunitas Serantau engaged in a discussion with Adrian Pereira, from the North-South Initiative (NSI) and a representative from Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) in May 2018. It was the first discussion on May Day/Labor Day.

Others, ethnicity-based associations, such as Ikatan Keluarga Madura or the Madurese Family Association (IKMA), not only help workers adapt to the local situation but also repatriate workers in the case of untreatable illness. Despite the strong formation based on identity, these associations are not exclusive when it comes to helping workers from different identity background. During the outbreak of Covid-19, these organizations have been at the forefront in redistributing help packages from both the governments and aid organizations. While advocacy activities are confined through online networks, they risk themselves reaching out to the most affected ones amidst lockdown.

IKMA was collecting donations and distributing grocery packages to foreign workers who had lost their onsite make-shift rooms (kongsi) in Damansara District of Kuala Lumpur due to fire in February 2018.

Concluding remarks

Foreign workers have been part of the host country’s economic advancement program. Statistics have shown the positive impact of foreign workers’ employment on the host-countries economy and society, including job-creation for locals. To take part in any ambitious host-country’s national economic plan such as that, foreign workers must endure forms of precarity including low wages and poor treatments in their work sites.

In anticipation of that precarity, many migrant-sending governments have attempted to reform the migration management in the ‘supply-side’ with the main goal to better protect their nationals from potential exploitation in the host countries. In parallel to that, migrants are also self-supporting themselves through the creation of many migrant associations. They play an important role in mitigating the impact of the many informalities in the working environment that may cause abuse.

During simultaneous health and economic crises like this, there are two potential ways to control the damage they caused. First, it is time to decentralize the state’s conventional labour protection policies from mainly relying on the government’s apparatuses to the workers themselves. The utilization of migrant associations and networks would answer the problems of ‘lack of jurisdiction’ and heavy bureaucracy that often impede the efforts to ensure foreign workers’ well-being. Besides, civil society networks must “lower the playground” from solely being the state’s partners to being friends of workers. By investing more networking activities on the grassroots, the main stakeholders in migration management will, at least, be exposed to the actual need of workers.

Women Migrant Workers
Female Foreign Domestic Workers protesting for their rights

Second, intergovernmental cooperation must focus on the regional mechanism of foreign workers’ protection in Southeast Asia. While it is equally important to further the discussion, for instance, on the Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) on eight professions to be standardized under ASEAN’s umbrella, any regional attempt should first be directed to end the discriminative practices against vulnerable workers regardless of job sectors. Such an effort is important because, first, all governments would want people of their nationals to be treated equally in any foreign setting. Second, people’s mobility improves a country’s economic gain. Lastly and most importantly, people’s mobility is inevitable.  


*Pamungkas A. Dewanto (Yudha) is a Ph.D Candidate in Social and Cultural Anthropology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
, the Netherlands



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