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The Cost of Legality: Navigating Labour Mobility and Exploitation in Malaysia

Journal article
Authors Anja K. Franck
Joseph Trawicki Anderson
Published in International Quarterly for Asian Studies
Volume 50
Issue 1-2
Pages 19-38
ISSN 2566-686X
Publication year 2019
Published at School of Global Studies, Peace and Development Research
School of Global Studies
Pages 19-38
Language en
Links https://doi.org/10.11588/iqas.2019....
Keywords Malaysia, Myanmar, guestworkers, employer sponsorship, legal status, labour mobility
Subject categories International Migration and Ethnic Relations, Peace and development research, Work Sciences

Abstract

Through examining the experiences of Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia this paper analyses the complicated relationship between legal status and protection from violence and abuse. While legal status has often been promoted as a means to protect migrants, we suggest that legal status is actually pursued only at particular moments and on the basis of particular cost/benefit calculations made by migrants. Even as legal status offers some protection from state authorities, the linkage between legal status and employer sponsorship means that it also binds migrants to specific employers. Crucial to these calculations too is the cost of legal status for both migrants and employers, imbuing the relationship with financial risk on both sides and turning legal status into an expensive “commodity”. Therefore, while migrant labour is often constructed as being “cheap”, our study reveals that a key factor in the exploitation of migrants is that they are in fact so expensive to hire. Thus, as we argue here, it is important to look beyond a narrow focus on legal status and consider the basis on which such status is extended – especially as such status is increasingly predicated on a sponsoring employer and significant financial investments.

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