The Malaysian government is set to launch a tough crackdown on illegal workers. The Immigration Department is teaming up with local police and a volunteer group to conduct a three-month campaign to round up and expel illegal workers. With the crack down to start on Sunday, many migrant rights groups are worried about negative consequences, such as police brutality and overflowing deportation camps.

malaysia illegal immigrants

Malaysia’s immigration department to lead the campaign

The campaign will be lead by the Malaysian immigration department. Police will also be used, and a volunteer force called Rela will assist the Immigration Department in checking for employment documents and rounding up illegal workers. Workers will then be processed for deportation. Many will end up in deportation camps, which are often set far off into the jungle and feature poor facilities. The campaign is set to last for three months.

Malaysia has become a favored destination for workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Wages are generally higher and working conditions are safer than in neighboring countries.  At the same time, Malaysia is still close to home for migrants, and when caught, police can often be bought off with bribes. Demand for cheap labor is also high, as company owners look to keep costs in line.

Illegal workers in Malaysia

Many of Malaysia’s low-skilled construction laborers, security, and food service industry workers are illegal immigrants. The simple fact is that locals do not want to work in these fields, at least not at rates comparable to illegal workers. Malaysia’s extensive road system, gleaming sky scrapers, and model cities have all been built by foreign workers. While this has helped keep costs low, locals charge that illegal immigrants are suppressing wages, especially for unskilled work.

While many migrants enter the country on a work permit, after the permit expires it is common for workers to simply overstay. The costs of getting an official visa is high, so many employers are willing to hire undocumented workers in order to keep costs down. Still, once undocumented workers are caught, they face being sent to a deportation camp before finally being processed and sent back to their home country.

Campaign to disrupt economic and business activities

Critics charge that the looming campaign will simply disrupt economic and business activities. Illegal immigrants are generally employed in jobs that locals simply refuse to work in, such as food service. If companies and businesses had to hire locals, critics charge, they would have to significantly increase wages. These wage increases would then be passed on to customers.

Further, demand for cheap labor will likely remain unchanged, unless businesses themselves are severely punished. As illegal immigrants are kicked out of the country, more immigrants will simply arrive to meet demand. Many will likely come on legal visas but then overstay once their visa expires. Meanwhile, deportation camps will be overflowing with illegal immigrants. Running these camps costs the government money, as does deportation itself.

Locals feel immigrants are suppressing wages

Still, illegal workers have become a sore point for many Malaysians. Many citizens feel that immigrants are suppressing wages and stealing jobs that would otherwise go to Malaysians. In theory, if illegal workers are removed from the labor pool, wages should rise, as employers will have to pay for more expensive local workers.

The government may feel forced to act, and may also be hoping to score some support among average citizens. In recent elections, the ruling Barisan National party nearly lost control of parliament. The flood of illegal workers into the country, who are estimated to number at least 1.7 million, was a much talked about issue during the elections.