Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

A documentary produced by Al Jazeera has portrayed the Malaysian government as neglectful of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in the country’s detention centers.

The claims were supported by Richard Towle, the representative for Malaysia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Refugees are treated as illegal migrants, and illegal migrants are at risk of all forms of vulnerability in society. They are liable to be arrested and detained and live in a grey or dark zone of society where there is a high degree of exploitation or abuse,” Towle said in an interview, also with Al Jazeera.

Towle urged Malaysia to improve its detention policies concerning refugees: “They may have transgressed some regulations and laws about migration status, but at the end of the day they’re ordinary people and they’re entitled to be treated in a humane and fair way.”

According to the UNHCR, there are 148,940 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the agency as of September 2014. About 137,770 are from Myanmar, comprising some 50,840 Chins, 40,660 Rohingyas, 12,040 Myanmar Muslims, 7,520 Rakhines and Arakaneses. There are 32,010 children below the age of 18. The number of asylum seekers from neighboring Myanmar soared after 2011 when clashes broke between some Muslims and Buddhists which forced the persecuted Muslim minority known as Rohingya to seek shelter in several Southeast Asian countries.

Towle noted that Malaysia has refused to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol to recognize the status of refugees. Since refugees are considered illegal immigrants, they are subjected to harsh penalties when caught. They cannot access basic services provided by the state and their children cannot attend public schools.

Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi has denied the allegations made in the documentary. He insisted that refugees are not being maltreated.

“Even though we are not a signatory to the convention of refugees, they are being treated with dignity, they are given access to medical treatment and they are allowed visits,” he said.

The minister stressed that children’s rights are being respected and that Malaysia has been compassionate in dealing with the growing number of refugees crossing its borders.

But it is not just the local government that is accused of violating the rights of refugees. Even local UNHCR staff were implicated by Al-Jazeera in a corruption scheme, after some refugees claimed that some officers were demanding money in exchange for an early interview with UNHCR. The interview is essential to ascertain the status of the refugee and the possible resettlement of the individual or family in another country. The UNHCR office in Malaysia has vowed to probe the issue.

Malaysia is seen as a safe haven by many people, especially those escaping local wars, ethnic clashes, and other conflicts that continue to displace thousands of people each year in Southeast Asia. For persecuted Muslims, Malaysia is the top choice for asylum-seekers since it has a predominantly Muslim population. But perception is often different from reality, with the Al Jazeera documentary showing refugees suffering from discrimination and maltreatment.

The Malaysian government, the UNHCR, and civil society groups monitoring the human rights situation in the country will need to come together to address this issue and ensure better protection for refugees and asylum seekers.

Why Cambodian Garment Workers Are on Strike Again

Written for The Diplomat

After launching a strike last December, Cambodia’s garment workers have once again taken to the streets demanding a monthly minimum wage of $177. More than 500 garment workers gathered last week at an industrial park in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, to press for higher wages. According to garment unions, about 300 factories across the country have joined the protest.

The current monthly minimum wage received by Cambodian garment workers is pegged at $100. Export earnings of the garment sector represented about a third of the country’s $15.25 billion GDP last year. There are more than 600,000 garment workers in Cambodia, the majority of them female. But aside from receiving low wages, workers also suffer from poor working conditions that often result in mass fainting incidents in various factories. Cambodia has one of the lowest minimum wages in the Asia-Pacific.

Last December, the strike mobilized tens of thousands of workers across the country to pressure the government to double the wages of garment workers, which at that time stood at $80. But labor officials rejected the full demand, and instead granted smaller increases of $15 to $20. The strike, which lasted until January, was at one stage violently dispersed by government forces, resulting in the deaths of five workers.

Learning from this debacle, the garment workers have decided to revive the campaign for a wage increase, but this time have directed their appeal to global clothing brands that buy and sub-contract supply from Cambodia. The campaign, dubbed “The buyer must provide basic wages $177,” is aimed at pressuring global brands such as H&M, Walmart, Levi’s, Gap Puma, C&A, Adidas and Zara to directly negotiate a higher wage for workers with their suppliers.

Union leaders have explained that the $177 minimum wage demand is based on the average monthly spending of garment workers. They also assert that global clothing brands have amassed more than enough profit which they could use to uplift the welfare of workers in Cambodia.

The government has reiterated its position that a substantial wage increase would scare away investors and disrupt the local economy. Fortunately, it didn’t break up the protest of workers, although police and army units were deployed near factories. Meanwhile, opposition leaders refrained from directly participating in the strike last week although they assured workers that they will bring the wage campaign into parliament.

The $177 wage increase campaign is supported by labor unions in a number of other countries. Solidarity actions were conducted outside Cambodia urging consumers not to buy clothes “tainted with exploitation and repression.”

In response, some clothing brands like H&M and Zara gave assurances that they are “ready to factor higher wages” into their pricing. They wrote Cambodian authorities and labor unions that their “purchasing practices will enable the payment of a fair living wage and increased wages will be reflected in our prices.”

Union leaders welcomed the statement but urged these companies to negotiate higher wages directly with their suppliers.

If garment workers succeed in their campaign, workers in other industries will be emboldened to petition for higher wages as well. Government workers might also ask for higher pay. But if these demands are ignored, it might spark further labor unrest. This would certainly have serious repercussions for Cambodia’s business competitiveness and political stability.

A far better outcome would be for this planned series of protests to remain peaceful and for the government to respect the right of workers to demand better living and working conditions.

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