KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 1, 2011 (AFP) - Malaysia launched an amnesty for nearly two million illegal foreign workers Monday but a labour group condemned the exercise as vague and leaving migrants vulnerable to being cheated.
During the six-month programme, foreign workers mainly from Indonesia, Bangladesh, and India will be registered under a biometric fingerprinting system, a home ministry official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
They will then either get to remain and work in Malaysia legally or be deported without facing punishment, the official added.
Punishments for working illegally in Malaysia can include jail terms or even caning.
The official said the fingerprinting exercise was also aimed at combating crime -- the government says many migrants workers get involved in criminal activities -- and preventing those who are deported from returning to Malaysia under a different identity.
"There is a shortage of workers in the plantation and construction sectors and demand for maids. The government wants to deploy these illegal workers to meet the demand before considering allowing fresh migrants to come in," the official said.
The amnesty programme was announced in June to deal with Malaysia's estimated 1.8 million foreign workers, who support the economy by filling low-paid jobs shunned by locals such as plantation and construction work.
The campaign is the third such major labour amnesty since 2005. However, some labourers deported without punishment in early versions were found to have returned with new identities, prompting the new biometric approach.
But a worker's rights group said the programme was unclear on what types of workers are subject to the finger-printing drive, which could leave some of them vulnerable to abuse or being cheated.
Irene Fernandez, executive director of Malaysian labour rights group Tenaganita, also complained that the government did not seek input on the campaign from labour groups.
"I am really concerned that there will be a racket out there to make money from the migrant workers. I foresee a fiasco. Migrants will be duped of their money," Fernandez said.
The government has appointed more than 300 private-sector labour recruitment agents nationwide to assist in the registration programme.
But workers have reported that some agents were seeking to exploit the situation, asking in some cases for sums of 3,500 ringgit ($1,200) to help labourers remain in the country and work legally.
"Agents are also using the amnesty to cheat refugees. How did these companies get their licenses? There is no transparency. The amnesty exercise is in such a mess," she said.
"We call on the home ministry to halt the amnesty programme."