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Life In Limbo: The Refugee Work Experience In Malaysia

As of January 2021, there are 178,710 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. Of this number, 68% of refugees and asylum-seekers are men, while 32% are women[1]

Refugees are people just like you and me, except that they left their home country for reasons not within their control, for example, war, severe persecution and human rights abuses. They are in Malaysia to seek refuge and a normal life, but the future is not always guaranteed. 

Source: Cilisos

Unlike migrants, refugees have lost the protection of their country’s government and they are unable to return to their home country safely. The legal framework safeguarding refugees globally is the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees which contain a list of rights they are entitled to and obligations refugees have towards their host country[2]

Unfortunately, Malaysia has not ratified the convention and one of the biggest drawbacks is the absence of job security for refugees. Abled, talented, educated and skilled refugees are not able to obtain formal jobs. 

Refugees who apply for the UNHCR card receive some level of protection which may reduce the risk of arrest and allow limited access to health care services, education and other essential support services provided by UNHCR and their partner organisations[3]

The card has no legal value and is not a passport, but it does have some commercial value in giving employees some confidence that they can hire refugees that come under a larger global organisation[4].

How Can Refugees Find Work In Malaysia? 

Despite not having the legal right to work, many refugees have had to find jobs to survive. According to a report by IDEAS Malaysia, refugees are often employed for informal jobs, in low-visibility locations such as construction sites, farms and plantations instead of the services sector[5]. These are the sectors unpopular amongst Malaysians themselves due to the dirty, dangerous and difficult job scopes which are now fulfilled through illegal employment.

The silver lining is that not all refugees are hired illegally. Some have entered the workforce and proceeded to climb the ranks as a result of trust from their employers. However, it is still a very small percentage of the entire refugee population in Malaysia. They are mostly hired to take on low-skilled jobs with no prior experience or higher education requirements[5]. But it does give a glimmer of hope and some sense of security to refugee families. 

According to UNHCR’s 2019 statistics, these are the sectors that refugees work in:

Source: UNHCR (2019) / IDEAS Malaysia

Employment Perils Refugees Face  

Source: Malaysiakini

Even after refugees find work in Malaysia, the workplace environment and journey is not smooth sailing. The challenges they face are commonly associated with the fact that they remain largely illegal and not protected by local legislation exposing them to risks of exploitation and social security. 

Findings from a report done on the Rohingya community, mostly construction workers in Kuala Lumpur revealed some of the hardships and challenges they face in the workplace[6]. Below are personal accounts of refugees who have participated in the survey and chose to remain anonymous to protect their privacy and safety. 

Photos are used for illustration purposes only.

1. Employment insecurity

Refugees face ambiguous work schedules, receive late salary or no salary (in some cases) for work done. As a result of illegal employment, they are not bound by contracts and are not guaranteed a job for a sustained period of time[6]

Source: Malay Mail

There are many types (of bosses). You have to work a long time for them to pay you. If they don’t really know you, they won’t pay you.

I used to have problems with my boss. I worked for a month and he still didn’t pay me. 

Sometimes we get paid less amount.

I’m done with my job. The boss said there is no more job. I’ve been looking for another job for a while.

I have problems. My employer doesn’t pay me. And then he leaves, no work.

2. Absence of foundational workers rights and protection

Refugees who accept work illegally are often subject to extreme working conditions, dangerous work environments that fall short on safety standards, unhygienic and unhealthy work and living conditions – are at higher risk of physical and verbal abuse and are susceptible to harassment by law enforcement[6]

Source: Jasmine Foong @ Malaysiakini

My work is dangerous because I work very high up. It’s very dangerous…because I don’t have anything (safety gear). I don’t have my employer. If anything happens, nobody will be responsible for me. I am responsible for myself.

Sometimes, I can’t take it anymore. Because we have to tolerate being in the sun. The sun is horrible. Painting the roof is very hot. It’s hot on top of the roof, and also under the room.

They (the employer) get angry at me a lot. Even if I make small mistakes, he gets very angry.

Sometimes, police immigration comes. Whether we have (UNHCR card) or not, original or fake, they take us to the detention center.

I would really like to work without being bullied at the construction site. I have a lot of challenges because I don’t have any documents.

I don’t like (working in Malaysia). I can barely sleep…my room is too small. There are fleas. Cockroaches. A lot of them, I can’t sleep.

3. Low pay and inadequate wages

The low-skilled jobs that refugees are often hired for come with small paychecks that can barely keep them and their families afloat. They not only have to survive but many of them have the responsibility of remitting money back to their families who remain in their home country[6]

Source: The Star

I’ve been in Malaysia for more than 17 years. Even if I work very hard, they (the employer) don’t give me money. I use the money to send home to my family, there, in the village, I have a mother and siblings. I send money there. Here, I pay rent. That’s why I’m still not married. I don’t have enough money. 

If I had documents, I could support my family. Now, it is very difficult to support my family.

I have a large family and I am the only one who works. I can’t do any other job. I look but there’s nothing else.

Living in Malaysia…I don’t have enough salary. I have a lot of family members. Every month, my father has to be hospitalized. Again.

Helping Refugees Find Work 

Humans, regardless of their background and legal status, need money to survive in this ever prosperous world we live in today. Although there is no certainty how long each individual refugee and family will remain in Malaysia, employment allows them to survive and put their children through education at the ever growing number of community-based learning centres set up especially for refugee children. 

Source: United Nations

Formal employment restores the dignity, value and worth of refugees. Despite their background and their place of birth, they too have hopes, dreams and aspirations. Refugees are not second class and they should be given an equal chance at surviving and even thriving in life.

These organisations have taken on the mantle of providing work opportunities to refugees in Malaysia. 

PichaEats – Serves delicious, hearty, heartwarming meals right to your doorstep! Every meal has a story woven into it. Refugee women take pride in their ability to cook and feed others and they are offering customers a taste of their home country through their food. You can order one-off meals, subscribe to their monthly meal orders or cater from them for events. Through PichaEats, you make a change to their lives just by enjoying a good meal! Follow them on Instagram: @pichaeats

Rohingya Project – Aims to create a viable future for the Rohingya community by connecting them digitally to opportunities to learn, equip and empower themselves. Through the creation of Financial and Social Inclusion digital platforms, these communities can access a range of virtual services including online education, digital identity and reward tokens. The platform will tap into the potential of the Rohingya community and other marginalized people and offer options to counter their exclusion from the mainstream.

Kneading Peace (Bakery) – It’s more than just a conventional bakery that serves up scrumptious baked goods. They train and empower refugee communities to have a skill that can improve their livelihoods. Visit their cafe shop in Melaka. Insta: @kneadingpeace.melaka

The Elham Project – Started in 2011 to provide refugee and asylum-seeking women with an opportunity to earn an income through making and selling artisanal crafts. Vocational training is provided and traditional designs and methods are encouraged in the making of bags, jewellery, clothes, and household products. Their online store also has food and catering services cooked by refugee women. Check out their online store.

Tenaganita – Founded in 1991, born out of the struggles of women workers in the plantations and industrial sectors to gain their rights as workers; for decent wages, decent living conditions and to stop discrimination and gender based-violence. The organization currently has three major focus areas of work: Migrant and Refugee Rights Protection; Anti-trafficking in Persons; and Business Accountability and Responsibility.

Explore Our Sources: 

  1. UNHCR. (2021). Figures at a glance. Link
  2. Rafi Togoo, R. et al. (2021). Security Dilemma of Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia. Scientific Research Publishing. Link.
  3. UNHCR. (2021). Information For Refugees and Asylum-Seekers (Malaysia). Link.
  4. Sahak, S., et al. (2020). The plight of refugees in Malaysia: Malaysia as a transit country in protecting refugees’ rights.  Journal of Nusantara Studies. Link.
  5. Todd, L. et al. (2019). The Economic Impact of Granting Refugees in Malaysia the Right to Work. IDEAS Malaysia. Link.
  6. Nungsai, M. et al. (2020). Poverty and precarious employment: the case of Rohingya refugee construction workers in Peninsular Malaysia. Nature Portfolio. Link.

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