Foreign workers in Malaysia go into hiding, fearing immigration raids

In limbo: Foreign workers waiting to be screened during an Immigration department raid in Jalan Kapar, Klang.
In limbo: Foreign workers waiting to be screened during an Immigration department raid in Jalan Kapar, Klang. THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK): It is only the third day of a nationwide operation to weed out illegal foreign workers but Malaysian employers are already feeling the pressure.

Fearing enforcement, a large number of both legal and illegal foreign workers have gone into hiding, and their employers fear they will not turn up for work until things have cooled down.

Among the industries badly affected are construction and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

President of the Master Builders Association Malaysia Foo Chek Lee said raids at construction sites will scare workers away and discourage them from showing up for work.

"This will jeopardise productivity, which will also affect the construction industry - one of the key drivers of our country's economy.

"Since the government is not extending the deadline for the E-Card (Enforcement Card) registration, we urge all contractors to quickly go for the rehiring process to save themselves unnecessary legal problems," he suggested.

Members facing problems with rehiring, said Mr Foo, could approach the association, which is working with Construction Labour Exchange Centre, for help.

He said during a raid, contractors will have no choice but to stop work while the workers' papers are checked.

"The overhead itself will 'kill' us. We may also get (hit with) liquidated ascertained damages (LAD) to compensate for late delivery. These are very costly," said Mr Foo.

Some of the workers were supplied by agents, he said, and were not employees. Businesses who engage these workers found it difficult to get them registered. This was because the agents supplying the workers were themselves not registered under the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), he added.

"When these workers are taken in, contractors are not sure if they are blacklisted (or) mentally fit or not. When they go for the E-Card and if they're rejected, the contractors have to bear the cost of sending them back to their home countries.

"They also have to pay RM600 (S$192) in advance for the rehiring programme when applying for the E-Card and there is no refund if the applications fail. These are some of the factors that made employers reluctant to register their illegal foreign workers," Mr Foo said.

Datuk Seri Tan Thian Poh of the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia said small businesses would be most affected by the recent crackdown.

"Big industry players will not be affected as most of us are employing legal foreign workers. However, smaller players and SMEs will be badly affected as most of them are not eligible to employ foreign workers legally," he added.

SME Association of Malaysia president Datuk Michael Kang said the crackdown was expected to affect SMEs' productivity as illegal workers no longer dared to work out in the open.

"We hope SMEs will be allowed to bring in legal workers to make up for the shortfall," he said.

Immigration department director-general Mustafar Ali said there was no need for legal workers to fear the crackdown.

In a brief WhatsApp message to The Star, he said: "Legal workers do not have to fear anything. Why should they?"

The E-Card, launched on Feb 15, is a temporary confirmation of employment for illegal workers and replaces valid travel documents from their countries. The card is given out to employees for free and is valid until Feb 15, 2018. The deadline for registration ended on June 30.