Malaysia brief

Malaysia is a major destination and transit point for large number of migrant workers in the region. Together with Indonesia and Bangladesh, Nepal accounts for a significant share of migrant workers in Malaysia. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs of Malaysia, as March 2019, Nepalis make up 331,724 (16.4%) of the migrant population. They are mainly employed in manufacturing, construction, agriculture (like farming, plantation, fishery, forestry) and services (public safety and security) industries. However, recently there has been a decrease in the number of Nepali migrant workers coming to Malaysia because of a temporary employment ban by the Nepal government issued on 28 July 2018.

The number of Nepali female migrants in Malaysia is small in comparison to their male counterparts. Nepali male migrants are more publicly visible as they work in private security, restaurants, and small businesses whereas Nepali female migrants tend to be concentrated in manufacturing.

These factors contribute to the gender-blind biases seen in the reports of various government and agencies. Not much is known about the particular issues faced by Nepali female migrants in Malaysia. This lack of gender specificity in the Nepali community is also reflected in media reporting and in the work of some Malaysian Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).

In Malaysia, as with countries like South Korea and the Middle East, sudden deaths among Nepali migrant workers is a serious problem faced by the community. According to statistics issued by the Nepali government, between 2008 and 2018, 2,443 Nepalis have died in Malaysia. These deaths are attributed to heart attacks, alcohol poisoning and suicide.

All documented migrant workers are required to do yearly medical check-ups as part of their visa stipulation. While this practice is to vet out unhealthy workers, it does not take into serious account the mental health and well-being of migrant workers in the workplace.

Moreover, the data is not sex/gender disaggregated. Thus, it is unclear to what extent Nepali women also face the same set of problems. Research conducted in other countries suggest that Nepali migrant women are likely to face abuse and even torture at the workplace.

Migration intermediaries

Under the Private Employment Agencies Act 1981 (PEA) (Act 246), intermediaries are defined as placement agencies between organisations, businesses, and migrants. They are regulated by various government agencies and involve different stakeholders. As a result, migration management is mired with overlapping policies and poor coordination. The lack of a comprehensive policy to regulate the recruitment and employment of migrant workers further complicates this issue.

Bilateral agreements signed between Malaysia and sending countries (including Nepal) are often framed in an abstract manner. This has given rise to fragmented and contradictory policy documents. They also mainly affect large industry players. More research needs to be done to understand the practical impacts of these agreements for migrant workers employed in smaller industries and their actual experiences on the ground.

Migrant workers in Malaysia are subjected to various restrictions as specified in their visas. This has given rise to avenues for exploitation by opportunists. Labour exploitation also exists in the form of heavy workloads and insufficient time to complete tasks coupled with no feedback permitted on workplace policies and workplace conflict. Such stresses would inevitably affect the occupational safety and mental health among migrant workers.

Migrant protection

Since the 1980s, mainstream media have tended to negatively highlight the presence of migrant workers as threats to local jobs, public morality, and public health.

By contrast, the legal channels for migrant workers to seek legitimate redress from abuse and exploitation are restricted to a few agencies like Legal Aid (Malaysian Bar Council) and the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH). Many migrant workers do not even know that their rights as workers are protected in the Employment Act 1965.

Over the years, a handful of Malaysian NGOs have been formed to come to the aid of migrant workers seeking legal redress from employers. They also work in providing critical intervention on legislation and policy matters based on international standards and protocols. However, this has been a constant upward battle as NGOs resources are scarce in comparison to the migrant industry players who profit from the movement of peoples across borders

Work Packages

WP1: Gender inequalities and South-South migration

WP4: Migrant perceptions, knowledge and decision-making

WP5: Migration intermediaries

Research Questions

  1. Why do Nepalis choose to come to Malaysia to work? Do Nepali women and men have similar or different understandings, motivations, and aspirations about migration? Why? (WPs 1 and 4)
  2. Who are the formal and informal intermediaries involved in their migration journeys? Do men and women take similar or different migration routes and pathways? Why? (WPs1 and 5)
  3. What do Nepali migrant workers experience when they are in Malaysia? How do they cope being away from home? What are the social networks and communication technologies that they rely on? (WP1)
  4. What are the official discourses and economic practices that influence and shape the political decisions and behaviour of key actors involved in the migration industry in Malaysia?
  5. What are the current legal mechanisms available to migrant workers to protect their rights? What are their limitations? What more can be done? (WP8)