KUALA LUMPUR • The Malaysian immigration department has been swamped with thousands of foreign workers and their employers in the last few days as they tried to apply for work permits before a registration deadline yesterday.
The authorities said they will, from today, begin the rounding up and deportation of foreign nationals who are in Malaysia without valid work or visitor documents.
Malaysia is a popular destination for migrant workers aiming for blue-collar jobs, whether as office cleaners or factory workers, in sectors ranging from construction and plantations to restaurants.
South-east Asia's third-biggest economy, with its 32 million population, has some two million registered foreign workers and more than one million more who work without work permits.
Most of them are from neighbouring Indonesia, with large pools of Bangladeshi and Nepalese nationals, as well as Rohingya from Myanmar.
Malaysian officials in February said they would allow illegal workers to change their status by registering their presence at the immigration department, with a June 30 deadline.
For the current E-cards, only workers from the 15 countries that officially supply their nationals to work in Malaysia are eligible to apply. These include Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Number of registered foreign workers in Malaysia, South-east Asia's third-biggest economy.
Number of foreign workers who work without work permits.
But most waited until the final days of last month to register for the so-called E-cards, causing the recent hordes and long queues at immigration offices.
"They have had plenty of time since Feb 15. Due to their stubbornness and negligence, they have left it until the last minute and that is not our fault," said Immigration Department director-general Mustafar Ali on Thursday.
Many of the workers came with their employers in tow.
A wall-plaster contractor known only as Teoh was at the Port Klang immigration office on Thursday to register his Bangladeshi workers. "They are good workers, and that is difficult to find these days. But if they don't have legal documents, we'll get into trouble," he said.
Officials say there are 600,000 foreign nationals working illegally who are eligible to apply for work permits for a fee of RM600 (S$192) each, but that only about 155,000 had done so by yesterday morning.
The annual deportation of immigrant workers is usually carried out in the weeks after Hari Raya Puasa, to allow many of these workers to return home of their own accord just before the Muslim festival.
Officials warned that the crackdown on illegal workers will start soon, despite appeals by employers for the deadline to be extended.
"The department is doing its best to accommodate all the applications but we also have limitations, whereby the systems that we use can only process a certain number of applications," Datuk Seri Mustafar told reporters yesterday, adding: "This is the Malaysian culture, where they will rush at the very last minute to do something."
The Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia and the Master Builders Association Malaysia, a group representing construction companies, were among those pleading for an extension of the deadline.
But Mr Mustafar said the government will start its crackdown on illegal workers from today: "We are going all out to arrest, fine and deport them back to their home countries. No more mercy."
In similar raids in the past, immigration officers accompanied by police and Rela volunteer corps converged on workers' quarters in construction sites and on housing estates where these workers rented lodgings. The Indonesians were usually sent back by ferries, while the others were flown back on scheduled low-cost flights.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK