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Undocumented migrant workers: Hidden and helpless in ASEAN

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Filipina domestic helpers Erika*, 37, and Fe*, 34, face their daily lives with uncertainty, hanging on to daily prayers in the hope that the day would not be the fateful day when immigration officers find them.

Both ran away from their employers – the most common reason why workers turn into undocumented labor migrants in Malaysia, one of the top receiving countries of migrant workers in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region.

But a decade since leaders of the 10-member ASEAN signed the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, a deadlock on the creation of an ASEAN treaty to protect them remains. Neither is there final agreement on whether or not undocumented workers should be covered.

These hidden workers, like their documented counterparts, contribute to the economies and societies of their host governments. 

Erika and Fe are just two among the estimated 5 million undocumented labor migrants in Malaysia, according to non-governmental oranization Tenaganita. The Philippines is one of the top sending nations in the region, besides Indonesia.

For more than a year, the two were not given days off and correct salaries by their respective employers. Add to that the enormity of their tasks, which were not indicated in their original contracts. (READ: Migrant workers: Undocumented, unprotected)

Contract substitution

The minimum salary set by the Philippine Overseas Labor Office for Filipino domestic workers in Malaysia is $400 (at least 1,700 Malaysian ringgit or P19,000). But more often than not, Malaysian employment agencies don't follow this.

They end up amending the contract between the employer and the worker. Both Erika and Fe received only 1,000 ringgit monthly with a heavier than promised workload.

"They do not comply with the required days off here. If you're a domestic worker here, the agency is the one that tells the employer not to give you any break. I had no day off for one- and-a-half years. I was not allowed to use cellphones and my passport was withheld from me," Erika said in Filipino.

“I was hired as a caregiver. But, it turned out, I would also clean 3 big houses and 7 cars. They did not give me any day off even if it was in my contract," Fe said.

Philippine labor attaché in Kuala Lumpur Elizabeth Estrada admitted that "contract substitution" is indeed one of the major problems faced by Overseas Filipino Workers, prompting documented workers to run away from their employers, turning them into irregular workers.

But the case is not just limited to Filipinos, as it is the prevailing situation of migrant workers coming from other neighboring countries, said Glorene Das, executive director of Tenaganita, a Malaysia-based NGO pushing for migrant workers' rights.

All eyes are now on the Philippines, as it hosts the 50th year of ASEAN, which also coincides with the 10th year of the 2007 Declaration. It was signed on Philippine soil when the country last hosted the conference. 

The case of Fe*

Fe and Erika shared how the police get money, ranging from 500MYR to 2,000MYR (P5,600 to P23,000) in exchange for not arresting them. Since policemen in their areas already know their faces, they would keep on extorting money from them.

“This is a money-making business. The politicians themselves own agencies and become employers. When you have stayed in Malaysia 10 years, 5 years, you know how the system works: there’s no system. Corruption is embedded in the system. Why would they want to protect them when they are earning from them, from cheating them?” she said.

According to Malaysia's Bar Council member Dato' M Ramachelvam, another reason is that the employers and agencies that hire undocumented people go scot-free, both in the receiving and sending countries. 

“At the same time we have receiving countries like Malaysia that allow migrants with no proper documents to enter the country and stay on to work. While these undocumented migrants may be detained, we do not see much action taken against the employers and agents who exploit these workers. Hence the demand for undocumented workers continues to escalate, especially when the recruitment fees that employers pay for documented workers increase,” said Ramachelvam, chairman of the council's Migrants, Refugees and Immigrant Affairs committee.

Rappler reached out to the Ministry of Human Resources, Ministry of Home Affairs, as well as the ASEAN-Malaysia Secretariat but they all declined interview requests.

ASEAN's silence on undocumented workers

Despite the contribution of migrant workers, undocumented included, there is still no clear regional stand on how to protect their rights. In fact, the 2007 ASEAN Cebu Declaration has no inclusive policy on undocumented workers.

ASEAN, Das said, has been focusing too long on investments and the business climate that it has put the welfare of migrant workers, the people who comprise and help economies, in the backseat.

The 2007 Declaration only has the following non-inclusive provisions:

The issue of undocumented workers and labor migrants’ families is among the 3 main contentious issues that have delayed the creation of a legally binding instrument to implement the 2007 Declaration.

Another issue is the legal nature of the instrument – whether it would be legally binding or just a mere guideline. Receiving countries such as Malaysia and Singapore want undocumented workers and migrant workers' families excluded from protection. At the same time, they have been pushing for a non-binding instrument.

“It’s hard to get full protection of migrant workers, how much more she, who is undocumented? Because of that status, they are not able to register a child in any mission and the baby becomes stateless. And there are no laws to protect the families of migrants. Even if you look at declaration,” Das said.

“And the other reason Malaysia or Singapore didn’t want to sign is because, [they think] why should we care for the families of migrants? Caring for migrants is already such a big deal, and now you're heading for family? They're not going to,” Das added,

As for Fe and Erika, legalizing their stay in Malaysia is their main objective, but not until they save at least 7,000 MYR (P78,000), which they will need to pay their agencies to secure an under-the-table working permit and, sometimes, a passport.

“I don’t want to go home yet because I don’t want to see them suffer, too. It’s better that I just suffer here alone than for us to be together but without any food to eat. No one will help us, I told my family," Fe said.

As for undocumented workers – left with limited options and a system encouraging the status quo – they will continue to endure abuse and discrimination, which to this day, for many of them, is part and parcel of earning a living for their families. –

*Names are withheld to protect the persons' identities and privacy.

This story was produced under the Reporting ASEAN program and media series implemented by Probe Media Foundation, supported by an ASEAN-Canada project, funded by the Government of Canada. It is also done in partnership with AirAsia, and in collaboration with the ASEAN Foundation.

($1 = 4.44 MYR)

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email