TRIANGLE in ASEAN – Malaysia

The ILO TRIANGLE in ASEAN is a partnership between the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Global Affairs Canada (GAC), and the International Labour Organization (ILO). TRIANGLE in ASEAN delivers technical assistance and support with the overall goal of maximizing the contribution of labour migration to equitable, inclusive and stable growth in ASEAN.

Programme objectives

TRIANGLE in ASEAN has the overall goal of maximizing the contribution of labour migration to equitable, inclusive and stable growth in ASEAN. It builds on the activities, relationships and processes established under previous phases of the programme.

Project outcomes

  • Protection: Migrant workers are better protected by labour migration governance frameworks;
  • Development: Policies and programmes harness the potential of women and men migrant workers to contribute to economic and social development and
  • Mobility: Labour mobility systems are gender-responsive and increase the efficiency of labour markets in the ASEAN region.

Labour migration

Although population growth has remained relatively high in Malaysia, its rapidly expanding economy, increasing urbanization and relatively low labour force participation among women continues to create major demand for migrant workers. Official data from the Immigration Department, Ministry of Home Affairs, shows that 1.98 million regular migrant workers were employed in Malaysia by September 2019. This does constitute about 20 per cent of the country’s labour force (United Nations Malaysia, 2019). However, a World Bank report estimates that some 2.96 to 3.26 million migrant workers, including 1.23 to 1.46 million irregular migrant workers, were residing in Malaysia in 2017 (World Bank 2019). With close to full employment since 1990 and high educational attainment among nationals, the Malaysia economy relies heavily on migrant workers to perform low-skilled jobs. Approximately one-third of workers in the services sector and 25 per cent in agriculture are migrants (World Bank 2019).

Despite their ubiquity within the labour market, the role that migrant workers play in filling the demand for low-skilled workers has not been readily accepted (with a few exceptions such as in domestic work). For many years, targets have been set and policies introduced to reduce the dependency on migrant workers. However, changing the composition of the labour force is difficult, with employers complaining of severe shortages in some industries when more restrictive policies have been applied.

Political and public discourse have regularly dovetailed in portraying migrant workers as a potential threat to national security and detrimental to the country’s long-term social and economic development. Labour migration policy in Malaysia has tended to be formulated largely from the standpoint of controlling immigration and maintaining public safety rather than labour administration, as indicated by the authority granted to the Ministry of Home Affairs over migration issues. Recent years have seen the rise of increasingly virulent rhetoric against migrants within the popular media, blaming them for a host of social problems ranging from electoral fraud to increases in street crime. Scapegoating of migrants, regardless of the realities, has contributed to an environment where exploitation and abuse are sometimes viewed as acceptable.

During the last several years, an increasing number of media and NGO reports have documented serious labour rights abuses against migrant workers in Malaysia, including potential cases of forced labour and human trafficking. Women domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse due to the physical isolation of their workplaces, restrictions on movement and inadequate mechanisms established to ensure accountability of employers. About seven per cent of migrant workers in Malaysia are employed as domestic workers (World Bank 2019) and the situation of these estimated 200,000 – 230,000 workers continues to be a major concern, particularly because of their lack of protection under labour law (ILO, 2016).