Site logo

Greater Inclusivity For the Migrant Population In Penang

Malaysia is the largest importer of labour in Asia1. Migrant workers (otherwise known as  migrant or foreign workers) in Malaysia, implies a foreigner doing low-skilled work2. They make up roughly 20% of the country’s workforce. Foreign labour helps to fuel economic growth by filling in gaps in the labour market2. Migrant workers concentrate on low-skilled employment, while allowing more Malaysian citizens to focus on higher-skilled jobs.

In September 2019, the Immigration Department, Ministry of Home Affairs stated that there were 1.98 million regular migrant workers employed in Malaysia3. The World Bank, however, estimated a total of 2.96 to 3.26 million migrant workers in 2017, with the vast majority involved in irregular employment or undocumented work. Their demographic includes Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Philippines2.Migrant workers in Malaysia have limited opportunity to move up the career ranks. Additionally, many of them have other employment issues to worry about. Media and NGOs have reported serious labour rights abuses against migrant workers, including exploitation, abuse, and the lack of accountability of employers3. At the end of the day, migrant workers are not protected under labour law. Penang is a major production centre in the global electronics industry, and hub for manufacturing and construction, a popular employment sector for migrant workers2.

Key Issues Affecting The Inclusivity For the Migrant Population In Penang

Better Living Conditions For Migrant Workers

Malaysian doctors identified that migrant workers were living in crowded living spaces with their co-workers with roughly 20 people sharing a 1,000 square foot house4. These workers inhabit the area on rotation based on work shifts with 10 people sleeping there at night and 10 in the morning4. Housing areas are known for not having running water, clean drinking water or good sanitation, in order to save costs, thus promoting the spread of infectious diseases4.

  1. Other housing facilities that migrant workers live in are containers, decrepit and run-down sheds as well as squalid flats while some have better living spaces4. In 2017, eleven migrant workers were involved in a hillside collapse in Penang, bringing to light their housing conditions being overcrowded, unhygienic and poorly maintained 5.
  2. The Penang government has acknowledged the problem and have since moved towards building dormitories to accommodate 2,100 rooms with 35,000 beds (the largest in the country)6. Jagdeep Singh Deo, Penang Local Government Committee Chairman, announced the project will commence in Teluk Kumbar. This new dormitory will add to the dormitory in Bukit Minyak that has a current capacity of 6,600 beds and Batu Maung which has 8,500 beds6. A new national minimum requirement for accommodations was provided to migrant employees in 2020 to improve the workers’ living conditions 7.

Keep Migrant Workers Healthy And Safe

A study on migrant workers in Penang showed that the most common form of illness they suffered was from common colds (27.22%)8. One in four had musculoskeletal pain (25.65%), whilst others had indigestion, and stomachaches (18.32%)8. Almost 15% of respondents reported accident-related injuries, mainly skewed towards domestic accidents (77.8%)8. Yet only 54% of these workers sought medical attention when faced with these problems. The study concluded that migrant workers that were frequent users of public transport were more likely to seek medical attention from local hospitals and clinics8.

  1. Domestic migrant workers (primarily women) are forced to work in isolation in their ‘new home’. Constant reports and media posts of their abuse is consistent with workers being overworked, sexually and physically abused5. In 2015, 261 Nepalis domestic workers died during their employment in Malaysia as a result of poor working conditions, high levels of occupational stress and lack of medical care 5. An increase of 32% of the reported 348 deaths in 20145. 

Educate Migrant Workers Labour Rights

Employing workers from foreign nations is a long and expensive process. Interested candidates pay recruitment agencies between RM12,000 - RM18,000 to secure a position. This payment can either be paid upfront or deducted from their wages later4. Various undocumented migrant workers may have to pay more or less than this amount, and often go into debt trying to fulfil the fee4. The majority of employment contracts are written in English, thus many workers are unaware of what they are signing on for9. Unfortunately, these contracts have clauses to ensure the workers cannot obtain other forms of employment. For example, a line in the contract may look something like this: “The Employee shall not change his employment during the contract period and shall not carry or do business without the written permission from the Employer”9.

  1. Migrant workers have little protection against abuse and may be subject to human trafficking and commonly referred to as modern-day slaves. Working in agriculture, palm oil, construction sites, manufacturing, electronic industries and domestic labour9. In Penang, documented abuse towards Nepali workers included forcing migrant workers to commit to 16 hour days with no days of leave. These workers are also subject to non-payment, sexual assault, workplace injuries, and even death. In many cases, migrant workers are paid below minimum wage5


Movers and shakers who are creating employment in Penang


Leave No One Behind​

Get educated on issues affecting Sabah today

Caring For Penang Ageing's...

As of 2020, 7.1% (2.32 million) of Malaysia’s population are aged 65 and above1. The United Nations Population Project predicts that in less than twenty years (2045), Malaysia will be an...

Affordable Housing For...

As cities develop and job opportunities increase, more and more people are enticed to set up home in cities in hopes for a brighter future. The problem is that not many people can actually...


Visually designed data for you to share, be informed and start conversations with your friends.

Caring For Penang Ageing’s Population

Affordable Housing For Penangnites (coming soon)

Greater Inclusivity For The Migrant Population (coming soon)

For collaboration opportunities, media appearances, trainings or speaking engagements

Connect With Us

Be A Changemaker Today

Drop us a line

For questions, partnerships or collaborations

BURSA TOP 20: Who’s The most charitable?