Exploitation Among Migrant Labour

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02/01/18 International Relations Reference this

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All human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity. -1944 The Declaration of Philadelphia, ILO[1]

Am I been exploited, are a teacher been exploited, are a doctor been exploited, or else an insurance sales man been exploited? It seems to be the question of the day. In today’s world there are so many things occurring around and in front of us, thereby the word exploitation is been a crucial topic to be looked into depth. Thus, the initial explanation that tends to be exposed in this project paper is that exploitation is a crucial thing that is going through even after the onset of the Modern world system. The term “exploitation” in this paper will generally draw on the exploitation among migrant labour that answers the question above. They are really been exploited in the world system that is constantly under the umbrella of capitalism. The big trouble of the world today is that market forces are overwhelming the state institutions and this happens when the governments in the rich countries are being forced to scrap their welfare state services. Meanwhile in the poor countries forces to abandon populist measures introduced to uphold national independence and protect the poor’s.

In illustrating this paper, the well-known world system theory will be a theoretical framework basically in explaining the exploitation among migrant labour.The opening of the 21st century has witnessed continuing controversies over how nation states should react to potential migrant flows and the seeming inability of migrants to integrate into the receiving state. Whether migrants always benefit the population that is expected to receive them is quite another matter, however. The only clear beneficiary of migration is the migrant. Whether their movement benefits the people in the country of destination all depends on circumstances. That is why borders cannot be fully opened, just as in peacetime they cannot be fully closed. [2] Indeed, the investment in developing countries made by developed countries takes full use of the cheap labour. Meanwhile the migrant labour’s productivity is very comparable to local low waged workers.

Simultaneously, open border is urged as a parallel to free trade, as though people were goods. But goods do not go where they are unwanted, goods have no rights or feelings, goods do not reproduce or vote, goods can be sent back or scrapped when no longer needed. Immigration concerns people, not objects, and consequently political and social importance is potentially much greater than any economic effect it may have. All areas of human activity have safeguards and regulations because markets are imperfect. It would be a very harsh world without them. Absolutely free movement of people is no more possible then the absolute free trade. Trade is never free, and ‘free trade’ always depends on negotiated conditions. It seems that the border is symbolising a free trade, but the sad thing is that international system and international law itself is against international labour mobility especially as in the case of the free movement of migrant labour in question.

Subsequently, the national borders are precisely what are hurled faced by migrants in Europe and beyond. Ranging from temporary seasonal workers who are exploited in the fields of Andalusia in Spain; to “legal” migrants who live and work every day in Eurospace; undocumented migrants working in irregular jobs in Italy or the UK, in factories or in the home, as many women do; “tolerated refugees” living in an isolated “junglecamp” in Northern-Germany; migrants detained in a camp in Greece or Poland, or even in front of the externalized EU-borders in Morocco or Ukraine. They all are crossing and forcing the boundaries living inside and struggling against the same “monster” which is the border control. Even as a strong regional economic power, due to its extensive reserves of oil and gas, Kazakhstan have been identified by numerous cases of violations of the rights of migrant workers, especially those working in the agriculture and construction industries. Migrants without regular status and without contracts are particularly vulnerable to exploitation: long working hours, lack of rest days, confiscation of passports, non-payment of salaries and sale of migrant workers from one employer to another. In both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, corruption within the police, customs, and border officials places migrants at constant risk of extortion and deportation. Such violations are generally committed with complete immunity.[3]

Consciously, today’s migrants labour, men and women alike, face various challenges including poor conditions of work and harsh working environments, racism, sexism and labour market discrimination. In addition, women and men migrants frequently sacrifice decent living conditions, health care, nutrition and education. Women migrant workers’ concentration in private homes and other unregulated venues rather than public workplaces can represent more vulnerability in terms of discrimination on gender, racial, ethnic, occupational and nationality grounds. They certainly could find themselves victims of exploitation, hazardous work conditions and psychological, physical and sexual abuse. In occupations such as domestic work, women migrant workers often find themselves excluded from the right to family reunification. Large numbers of them can also often find themselves excluded from legal employment when arriving as spouses of temporary workers. It is widely recognized that the most painful social cost of migration is the separation of children from their parents, especially when it is the mother that has migrated.

Simultaneously, all over the world capitalist exploitation is unimaginable without the global differences, constructed through filters and zones, the hierarchies and inequality, and through the external as well as the internal borders. Illegalisation and deportations on one hand, selective inclusion and recruitment of migrant workforce on the other hand, are two sides of the same coin: migration management for a global apartheid regime, whose most precarious conditions of exploitation are based on the production of hierarchies in terms of rights and on racist discrimination. Low wage countries in the south are used to undercut wages through relocation of production, low wage sectors in the north are targeting young migrant workers: trying to keep them obedient by blackmailing them, as their right of residence is linked to their jobs. It surely makes sense that migrant labour is forced to live in precarious hell, and they still struggles and finds a no way out to improve conditions traditionally, or even voice demands for visibility, rights and citizenship.

Historically, in the last twenty years, World System theory has become one of the common structures used by historians and also the social scientists to account for the political economy of complex societies. The world system theory thus emphasizes the role of long distance exchange dominated by highly centralized core areas as the main factor explaining both the organization of less complex neighbouring, institutions, and routes of developmental change. The classic and defining example of a world system is the extension of European colonial control over Africa and the Americas from the sixteenth century to the present. But now, the system is well known as capitalist world system under which capitalism acting as a dominator in the class system divided by core and periphery in which situation that the core dominates the periphery. [4]

Ideas of Adam Smith, Ricardo, Karl Marx have significantly contribute to the development of the world system theory. Marxism does influence popular scholar like Immanuel Wallerstein who has analysis the modern world system that comprises core, periphery and also the semi-periphery.Wallerstein have stated that the relations between the three stages (core, periphery, semi-periphery) are interconnected with each other and there is an unequal dependencies among the three stage.[5] Thus, the unequal or unbalanced dependencies introduces another significance of stimuli in migrant labour as will be shown in the Malaysian case..

So, following from the historical development, the concept of nationality emerged to link citizens formally to the state. Simultaneously, the presences of international migration come to be defined as the movement of persons that is non-nationals or foreigner, across national borders for purposes other than travel or short-term residence. [6]

Significantly, globalization that drives as a force to modern world system has become more crucial since 1990s mainly after the collapse of Soviet Union. In a matter of fact, the trend of globalization has significantly widened the scope of free market economy albeit movement of capital and this has sufficiently created the income gap between developed countries and developing countries. Marauding capitalism in other words is farther reshaping as the free market system which are been dominated by the core or developed countries. Thus, with the wide economic disparity, labour market imbalances between the countries and the undeveloped labour migration regimes have all inevitably contributed to cross-border labour movement, especially immigrant labour.[7] Significantly, it is obvious that there is an unbalanced development going on mainly because of the surplus of production that is unevenly dispersed.

It can be stressed and pointed out that the migrant labour that has been a subject of exploitation since the emergence of capitalism and more critically known as world capitalist system. In capitalism, workers sell labour, so labour is a commodity as well that is bought and sold and has exchange value. It is exactly proven that all profit that gain by capitalism comes from the labours. Meanwhile, the flow and movement of workers to other countries are according to the labour market that is being caught under the power of capitalism. In this matter, migrant labour is the main momentum to the capitalist mainly to increase their capacity. Migrant labour which are largely from Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines move to other countries due to the flow of the labour market system.[8]

Many migrant labour enter illegally or on various short-term pretexts seeking to stay and improve their position by any available means. And even the economic benefits of labour migration, once uncritically acclaimed, are less clear than they were and may well in some cases be negative when all costs are considered. Too easy an access to migrant labour can create distortion and dependency in an economy. Any large modern society which finds that it in some way needs constant flows of immigrants, over a long time, is suffering from this labour problem with its society or labour market or economy which it ought to rectify by reforming itself, not depending on the rest of the world. (Borjas 1996, Wardensjo 1999)

In no other area of public policy are we urged to believe without doubting whatever business has revealed about its supposed labour needs, and to give it all it wants. Business interests however are short-term. Easy immediate access to labour will always be preferred to the costs of training and capital investment for the longer term. According to fundamental economic theory, uncontrolled migration is always beneficial because labour is then enabled to flow from countries with abundant cheap labour and little capital to high wage areas where labour is scarce but capital abundant. Obviously, free migration is expected to equalise the ratio of capital to labour everywhere, until equilibrium is reached where wages have equalised and capital efficiency is maximised. Net migration then comes to an end.

However these simple assumptions are seldom satisfied. Poor counties with population to spare greatly outweigh destination countries. Compared with the latter, their populations are effectively infinitely large. The equalization of wages expected from this process means lower wages in the receiving countries. Fundamental political theory and practice tells us the wage reductions so welcome to economists and employers are distinctly unattractive to employees and electorates. Most migrants do not bring capital with them, in addition many move forreasons little connected with the labour market. So instead, the supporters of migration now spend much effort assuring us that the theoretically desirable macro-economic deflationary consequences of migration cannot actually arise, but that all can benefit from higher incomes. The latter argument is looking increasingly messy as evidence mounts that the effect is divisive. Previous immigrants, and the poorer sections of society,suffer adverse consequences while the middle class may enjoy cheaper services from migrant labour.[9]

In a matter of fact, the segmented labour market provides another escape route that some jobs will not be done by locals and must be done by immigrants. However one of the reasons why locals will find some jobs unattractive is because it is mostly immigrants who perform them. If employers can pay immigrant, not in local wages, they thereby become dependent on perpetual immigrant labour, in some cases illegal. The concept of segmented labour markets finds little realistic support on a large scale. Where such segmented markets do exist they tend to be a function of excessively low wages, insufficient capitalisation of the function in question or excessive levels of employment protection in the regular economy running hand in hand with illegal migrant for employment. The suggestion that some unattractive jobs must in future be done by foreigners implies the weed of a permanent ethnically distinct underclass.[10]

More strategically, migration changes economies and creates dependence on further migration. It allows obsolete low-wage, low-productivity enterprises to continue in poor conditions, which otherwise would have to raise the wages of their workers, introduce more capital intensive processes or export the function to the countries where it could be performed more cheaply for everyone’s benefit. International migration refers to the push and pull movements of populations across national frontiers that are the circulation patterns of persons in which who emigrate (exit) and immigrate (enter).

Simultaneously, one of the most striking changes in the character of international labour migration in Southeast Asia especially in Malaysia during the second half of the twentieth century has been the great increase in the scale, complexity, and significance of Indonesian labour migration. Malaysia had selectively practised ‘open borders” even after gaining Independence in 1957, and irregular migration revealed itself as a problem only in the early eighties when the economy began to slow down. In the first half of the twentieth century, there are plenty of migrant labours that comprised a large number and were welcomed both as settlers and temporary indentured workers.

Thus, it has been stated that the foreign workers come from twelve countries in the region that is from the ASEAN countries and neighbouring countries supplying a much needed workforce in Malaysia’s agricultural, construction, manufacturing and services sectors.[11] Of the 1,8 million persons registered in the statistics by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the largest number of migrants come from Indonesia (1,2 million) and works mainly in the plantation sector (381,582 of them) followed by Nepali (192,332 persons registered) mostly represented in the manufacturing industry (159,990). According to the figures, Indian workers (134946) are legally employed in the same sector (34685) but also in the services (61,273) and in the plantations (27,759). Other sending countries include Burma (88,573), Vietnam (81,194), Bangladesh (55,389), Philippines (21,694), Pakistan (13,296), Cambodia (5,832),Thailand (5,753), Sri Lanka (3,050) and China (1,295).[12]

Based on official figures, the foreign working force seems to be constantly growing. However, no consistent national immigration policy has been decided by the authorities. There is a total absence of direction between the various national Ministries involved in the management of migrant workers. The absence of a written immigration policy or immigration quotas also reflects the ad hoc approach of the government; the policy in this field seems mainly reactive. Various members of civil society confirmed that the sustainability of the Malaysian economy is deeply related to this illegal immigration. Malaysia, as with many countries of immigration, relies on foreign workers for the ‘3D jobs’ (Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult), often avoidedrejected by the Malaysian nationals.

From the late 1950s to the 1960s, undocumented migrants, predominantly from Indonesia, were silently welcomed as they belonged to the same racial stock and could be easily assimilated and integrated into the Malay community. This political motivation was later followed by economic necessities. In the 1970s, rapid development under the New Economic Policy (NEP) allowed for the absorption of a new wave of migrants, and by 1984, there was an estimated half a million migrant population in the country, all of whom were undocumented. The unofficial estimates were much higher at around one million.[13]

Their movement to Malaysia was also unrestricted. Since the 1980s, economic, social, and demographic changes in the region, consistent with accelerated globalisation, have deeply affected Indonesian labour migration to Malaysia. The destinations of Indonesian labour migrants currently overlap national boundaries to a far greater extent than before, and many more Indonesians have acquired the ability to move as free workers.

Despite the legal and administrative channels to employment in Malaysia, irregular migrants take high risks to be in irregular status for a variety of reasons. Unlike the employment of highly-skilled labour, legal recruitment of low-skilled labour involves several intermediaries in the sending and receiving countries to process their movement, raising their transactions costs of migration. In contrast, illegal employment is less time-consuming and uncooperative, and cheaper for both employers and migrants. In another view, it is obviously can be stated that the most migrant labour came to Malaysia as a legal workers, but after some time, the workers will be cheated by their agents or their employers, and finally the legal or documented workers will be become illegal.

Besides that, policies also tie foreign workers in legal status to a particular employer and location. Hence, foreign workers who prefer greater freedom and flexibility, and seek more opportunities to earn higher income resort to irregular migration. On the supply side, there is a ready secondary job market for irregular migrants. Despite severe sanctions against employers hiring irregular migrants, they continue to hire irregular migrants since they are cheaper and can be hired for shorter periods than warranted by the work permit. In addition, employers caught hiring irregular migrants are rarely punished, giving the impression that they are immune to the tough laws. Irregular migrants are likely to work in the informal sectors of the economy or in the remote parts of the country. They are also more open to exploitative working conditions and resort to crime when unemployed. They live in horrible housing conditions and are a source of highly contagious diseases.

As far as concerned, estimates of irregular migrant workers varied from as low as one million to as high as two million in the mid-1990s, depending on whether it is official or unofficial. The high incidence of irregular migration has been curbed to some extent through a combination of measures that include tough immigration and labour laws that penalize migrants as well as those hiring, harbouring or trafficking in irregular migrants, strict border and internal controls, regularization and amnesty programmes and bilateral engagement with host countries. Apprehended irregular migrants are either prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment or placed in detention centres before being deported. The Malaysian government faces enormous problems in repatriating irregular migrants due to legal barriers and lack of administrative resources.

In overall, the goal of this project paper is to investigate the push and pull factors that have given a deep impact on labour exploitation, as in the case of Malaysia and Indonesia labour movement. Thus, Wallerstein’s concept of World System Theory will be used as a theoretical framework in this project. Significantly, Wallerstein’s concept did explain the exploitation of core on periphery, but this project paper tend to add his concept by emphasizing that in current context, labour exploitation did occur among the peripheries/ semi peripheries especially in the case between Malaysia and Indonesia. This paper also will briefly explain the level of exploitation among migrant labour in various sectors in Malaysia.


This paper is mainly written to explain the relevance of Wallerstein’s concept of labour exploitation in current context. Thus, this paper illustrates the current situation of migrant labour in contemporary world system where they are being the subject of exploitation.Basically, in current situation, a large number of migrant laboursare going through a stage of exploitation. For instance, we can look at what is going on in Florida, where thousands of migrant farmworkers are being abused and can be regarded as modern slavery. Meanwhile, if we look at Dubai now, thousands of migrant construction workers mainly from South Asia are being exploited. More precisely, this paper mainly focuses on the level of exploitation among the Indonesia migrant labour in Malaysia in a variety of sectors especially plantation, construction, and the domestics. Beside, this paper will add to Wallerstein’s concept by stressing that labour exploitation did occur among the peripheries/ semi peripheries mainly because of the uneven development between them.


The research questions ask as follows:

  1. Does International Law discriminate against international mobility of migrant labour?
  2. Is Indonesian migrant labour being the subject of exploitation in Malaysia, and if it is true, in what sense are they being exploited?
  3. What is the push and pull factors shaping Indonesian migrant labour exploitation in Malaysia?
  4. What are the remedies taken or proposed?


The main objectives of this study is as below:

  1. To analyse the wallerstein’s theory of labour exploitation in the current context.
  2. To determine whether Indonesian migrant labour in Malaysia being exploited or not.
  3. To analyse the push and pull factors that persuade Indonesian migrant labour seeking job in Malaysia.
  4. To suggest solutions and options to overcome the labour exploitation in Malaysia.


This paper will precisely illustrate the difficulties that are being faced by the migrant labour according to the World System theory and specifically on the Indonesian migrant labour in Malaysia. Thus, the problem of what faced by the immigrant labour is not of a small scale, but are in a big and complex proportion. they all are facing a large problem that we should consider. The migrant labour are largely been exploited in many ways by capitalists. Therefore, this paper is trying to look into this matter more sharply and take into consideration on the exploitation among Indonesian migrant labour in Malaysia that shaped by the push and the pull factors causing the uneven development between the semi periphery that is Malaysia and the periphery that is Indonesia. So, this project paper tends to deepen the World System theory by putting a point that there is an uneven development going on between Malaysia and Indonesia that really shape the exploitation among the migrant labour from Indonesia.


The world can be perceived as a core and periphery dichotomy where core countries are characterized by high levels of development, a capacity at innovation and a merging of trade flows. The core has a level of dominance over the periphery which is reflected to flow of migrant labour to other countries. In a simple way, it is obvious that international relations are shaped by global inequality that is under the sphere of world system theory, core-periphery, and dependency theory. In specify, this paper will touch on the capitalist exploitation on migrant labour especially on the matter of Indonesian migrant labour in Malaysia. This paper also will touch on the different level of capitalist dependency between Indonesia and Malaysia that caused the dependency between the semi-periphery and periphery country that contribute to the flow of Indonesian migrant labour to Malaysia and how are being exploited mainly because of the uneven development and capitalist system.


There are few writers that have significantly pointed out their views on migrant labour on being a subject of exploitation in the current context. In Marxian political economy, exploitation refers to class exploitation, meaning to say the producer exploit the proletariat with low wages well below the actual amount of work done. The proletarian is forced to sell his or her labour power cheaping in order to survive. While the capitalist exploits the work performed by the proletarian by accumulating the surplus value of their labour. Therefore, the capitalist makes a living out of owning of the means of production and generating a big profit, which is really the product of the labour, the actual producers. Refer to the www.answers.com)

Sarah H. Paoletti. (2009), have pointed out that migrant labour can be found labouring in all industries and all socioeconomic levels across the world. But it is migrant workers both with lawful status and without-who are engaged in low wage employment defined in the international dialogue by 3 D’s – dirty, dangerous, and degrading. The writer has critically stated that there is a vast amount of exploitation among the migrant labour which are specifically from low skilled or unskilled jobs. In addition, the writer has taken the human rights perspectives.

In other perspective, Bach. R. L.,and Schraml. L.A. (1982), have stressed that the push and the pull factors are in a matter of fact shaping the labour exploitation. In this case, it is true that immigration results from push and pulls factors. It is tend to be said that the pushers can be famine, hurricanes, civil war, lack of jobs and drought meanwhile the pullers may be social stability, economic strength or real job possibilities.In this case, Bach and Schramltend to say that the migrations among people especially labour are being subjected by the push and the pull factors. Generally these scholars tend to agree that labour exploitation really takes place because of the push and pull factors.Meanwhile, Castles and Kosack (1973) advocate a Marxist interpretation of race relations, which arise essentially from the way in which the richer European nations have dominated and exploited poorer nations. It is useful to capitalism to have a reserve army of labour. Furthermore, migration favours the host country. The migrants are young, strong and healthy and have had their upbringing at the expense of their parent country. Thus, the host country has not had to pay for this. They regard “migration as a form of development aid for the migration countries” that acquires labour with little cost.

Besides, Claudia von Werlhof (2007), a well-known Professor of Women´s Studies at the Institute for Political Science, Department of Political Science and Sociology, University of Innsbruck, have put into consideration the “woman question” was addressed as a part of the wider social and ecological context. Generally, she intent was to explain how these phenomena could exist in the midst of alleged peace and democracy, which is a capitalist regime of wage labour, and allegedly ever increasing standards of living within industrialized nations what passes for “western civilization”. However, a look beyond the confines of the so-called “First World” expanded the question further on how was it possible that, despite its incorporation under”progress” and “development”, the so-called “Third World” remained characterized by underdevelopment and a lack of skilled labour.

Borjas (1999) has introduced the notion of a “global migration market”, where individuals nationally calculate the relative benefits of staying put as opposed to moving to one or another foreign destination. People migrate to places where the expected net returns over a given time period are greatest. But in this matter of fact, immigrant labour that goes to other countries have going through exploitation mainly because of the capitalist that conquer the labour. It is true that dependency have cost a lot of implication to the immigrant labour because the unbalanced and different level of dependency among core and periphery have definitely cause a nation state to send their labour to another countries. Borjasalso describes a more modern version and extension of the economic equilibrium approach to migration. He also shows that the self-selection of migrants on the basic of the unobserved abilities depends entirely on the extent of income inequality in the host and the source country. Usually international migration is rarely a free movement of people across borders, but usually strongly influenced by various physical and non-physical barriers.

A prominent scholar Samir Amin(1990) observed that workers at the periphery are been super-exploited because the differential of wages and incomes from non-wage labour in general is much higher than the differential of productivities and in which productivity increases that take place in developed nations are passed on to their workers in the form of higher wages and income, while most or all of the productivity increases that take place in developing nations are reflected in lower prices. In another perspective, B.N. Ghosh (2007), expressed that exploitation contributes to the generation of inequalities, and inequalities in many cases are responsible for exploitation. Ghosh’s view is sufficiently been revealed from the view of Mahatma Gandhi and he also strongly believed that capitalist development accentuates inequalities that lastly created the exploitation among people especially the labours. According to Ghosh from the political economy perspective, exploitation implies taking advantage of some people or situation to serve selfish interests without corresponding compensation to the exploited party. Thus, in this matter, his view is really on the point that the capitalist really exploited the labours especially on what is going through by Indonesian immigrant labour in Malaysia that is being exploited by the capitalist and because of the uneven development.

It is interesting to read the article of Thomas P. Rohlen (2002), on Cosmopolitan Cities and Nation States: Open Economics, Urban Dynamics, and Government in East Asia, have sufficiently explained that global capitalism in the new world system is shaping the urban agenda that he had mainly focused in East Asia countries such as Taipei, Japan, and Korea. In this article also, Thomas had explained that how a city which unable or unwilling to comply with the expectations and the standards of international capitalism are precisely look to be in a state of disadvantage. Its seems that capitalism in the world system did significantly became a force to give instruction to other states and this could bring about the stage of exploitation mai

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