Is slavery rife in Malaysia?

The issue of legal and illegal immigrants in the country is not a new development. We have heard politicians from both sides of the divide question, proclaim and even condemn the problems associated with the country's addiction to cheap, submissive labor.

By J. D. Lovrenciear

In the name of development and progress, we have opted to bring in the foreign workers from the region – both legally and illegally.
Published statistics indicate that on the average, Malaysia's legal immigrant population is in the region of about 10 – 15 percent of the nation's total population — meaning some 2.5 million people we meet across the country are legalized foreign workers.
Politicians have also stated in the past that if we were to add the droves of illegals entering and leaving the country, one can easily claim that the foreign workers in the country could be in the region of 4 – 6 million.
In the wake of the cycles of shrinking economies and financial troubles, we have also been quick to explain a myriad of problems associated with our dependency on foreign-workers.
Foreign workers (especially the illegals) are often being blamed for a host of social and economic ills. Intensity of crimes, job-stealing, cultural pollution, overloading of the school and health care systems, and yet not sharing in the tax burdens of the nation as well as causing the spread of contagious diseases — all of these are spewed over the foreign workers each time we face economic hardships in our land.
And beneath all the debatable issues related with legal and illegal immigrants lurks a far greater monster that we are seemingly not taking into serious account.  The burning question is, are Malaysians guilty of practicing, encouraging and shielding slavery?
Before we jump the plank and bark denials, let us critically appraise the following thoughts:
  • Why do we need to engage cheaper labor? Is it not because we want our profit margins to bloat so that the business owner can have it all for himself?
  • What kind of working conditions do we provide our foreign workers? The humble maid rises before the employer and is expected to sleep only after the household has nestled for the night. Even her right to eat at the main table is not a favored practice in many homes.
  • What kind of living conditions do we offer the slogging 'kaki-tanggan' of our nation's economy? Look at the 'kongsi' that house our workers: plywood walls, river water and dug-out toilets pits are the standard. Likewise, even the maid is given the most insignificant space in the house.
  • How about payment of wages? Do we pay them on time or are we using their money for our own cash-flow and investment advantage by delaying payments over weeks and days?
  • And then look at how we bosses (including our children) communicate with these workers. Is barking orders not a common trend? And do we not justify with the often heard argument 'Oh we cannot give them face otherwise there will be trouble'?
  • The illegal immigrant malaise is yet another story of greed and corruption. Certainly someone is making big money getting these illegals into the country. And certainly there are greedy, deceitful employers ready to grab these illegals. Are illegals going to be treated one scale better than the legals?
It is time that we revisited our dependency on foreign labor. Arguing that one bad case of exploitation does not make the lot of us ugly is a cowardly escape.
Or to rebut with the claim that 'if you give them face they will bring trouble' reflects our bankrupt virtues.
And certainly to stake that immigrants are second class to Malaysians is despicable of a human soul.
Beneath the rhetoric mantras of economic development or proclamations that 'locals are not willing to take up the jobs' lies a more frightening reality. Malaysians may be guilty of practicing and promoting slavery. No?