2,443 illegals nabbed on first day of crackdown

An illegal immigrant hiding in makeshift living quarters in Klang being discovered during the weekend raid. Malaysia has some two million illegal workers.

MALAYSIA - Continuing a massive crackdown on illegal foreign workers which began on Sunday, the Malaysian government said it will not stop until every single one is deported.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said immigration officers arrested 2,443 people on the first day of the exercise - 717 were Indonesians, 555 Myanmar nationals, 387 Bangladeshis, 229 Nepalese and others from Cambodia, Vietnam and China.

"This is an ongoing operation and we will not compromise," he told reporters on Monday. "Our target is to achieve zero illegal immigrants."

Malaysia has some two million illegal workers, many of whom work in labour-intensive sectors such as manufacturing, construction and plantation industries.

The police and immigration department officers said many of those arrested were found in squatter houses, plantations, entertainment outlets and massage parlours across the country.

Datuk Seri Zahid also warned that employers found protecting illegal workers will face legal action.

Employers hiring these workers could be either fined up to RM50,000 (S$19,000) or face a jail term of up to five years, caned or all three.

Economists say Malaysia's reliance on masses of low-income illegal workers has kept the country mired in low-value activities. But the country has also periodically held amnesties in an attempt to identify and legalise them.

Since 2011, the government ran a programme known as 6P so illegal workers could apply for a work permit. But only about 620,000 workers had applied for the programme as of last November.

Of those, about 500,000 were legalised. The rest were repatriated without punishment.

Employment associations say the crackdown is at best a temporary measure and does not stop illegal workers from returning once it is over.

Human rights activists, meanwhile, say there is a grey area between legal and illegal workers.

Mr Charles Hector, a human rights lawyer, said many foreign workers arrived as documented workers but threw away their permits to avoid paying a new workers' levy introduced in May, meant to lessen the burden on employers of a new minimum wage law.

Foreign workers now have to pay up to RM150 a month to be able to work in the country. "It is no use arresting these workers when the problem is the mechanism, which is encouraging foreign workers to go undocumented," he told The Straits Times.

Ms Sharon Tsang, president of Sabah Furniture Manufacturers' Association, said employers want to legalise their workers but they are put off by the lack of clarity on the 6P programme.

"We don't even know if these workers will be able to extend their stay and for how long. How can we cope with such uncertainty when we have a business to run?" she said.

Tenaganita, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on migrant workers and refugees, said the crackdown is an infringement against human rights as over 100,000 refugees who lack legal protection in the country would also be affected.

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