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Issue of Migrant Workers Adds to Malaysia-Indonesia Tension

  • Tim Johnston

Relations between Southeast Asian neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia are under strain from a number of issues. Among them is mounting tension caused by Kuala Lumpur's crackdown on illegal workers in the country, and complaints that Indonesia is not doing enough to legally document its migrants headed for jobs in Malaysia.

Malaysia needs cheap labor to supply its vital plantation and construction industries, and Indonesia has a huge pool of unemployed workers willing to take the jobs.

But attempts to regulate the movement of labor have led to problems. Millions of Indonesian workers travel illegally to Malaysia, and Kuala Lumpur, under pressure from local interests who accuse migrants of stealing jobs and fueling crime, regularly rounds up and expels them.

Malaysia late last year offered a four-month amnesty to illegal immigrants, leading to an exodus of some 450,000 people. Then, on March 1, a crackdown began to find and expel any remaining violators.

But the resulting labor shortage is hurting businesses, and Kuala Lumpur accuses Jakarta of holding up efforts to give workers the legal documents to cross the border.

Shamsuddin Bardin, the director of the Malaysian Employers Federation, says many plantations are losing thousands of dollars a day because of the shortage of workers.

"This is something that nothing much they can do because their products are perishables. Since they are not able to harvest their products, they're just going to waste," he said.

Mr. Bardin says companies are losing orders because they cannot deliver products on time.

Malaysia has given Indonesia a month to get workers documented or it will start recruiting labor from other countries, such as Bangladesh and the Philippines. But Mr. Bardin says this may be too long.

"From the employers' side, we are not able to wait for that long, one month is far too long," he said.

Indonesia says it is doing all it can to speed up the return of legal workers. It has set up one-stop registration centers at a number of emigration points, but major problems remain.

Among these is the $340 fee charged for the necessary documents. This is a huge amount for workers paid only a few dollars a day.

The Indonesian and Malaysian foreign ministers were meeting Wednesday in Jakarta, in part to try resolving the problem.

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