Lao fishermen return to Malaysia, despite risks

Thousands of Laotians are once again leaving their home country to work in the Malaysian fishing industry, where they are susceptible to abuse from employers due to their illegal status, the fishermen told RFA.

The Lao Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare estimated that about 2,000 Laotians had recently traveled illegally to Malaysia for fishing jobs. During the pandemic, 700 Lao migrants had returned home from Malaysia, but most have since gone back as economic conditions in their home country worsen due in part to high inflation.

Though the pay is sometimes better there than what they could earn in Laos, illegal migrants are often exploited by their employers, a Lao fisherman who has been working in Malaysia’s Pahang state told RFA’s Lao Service, on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

“There’s no fairness,” he said. “The main drawback is that we, as fishermen, don’t know the total weight of the fish we catch and we don’t know how much money our employers make. We just get whatever they give us. The information about the total catch and revenue is not known to us.” 

To ensure their rights are protected, the Lao government is working on finding ways for more migrants to go to Malaysia legally.

“We recently sent about 70 Lao workers to Malaysia, legally, for a pilot project. We are requesting that the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs send more workers to Malaysia, as we know many Laotians are going there to work illegally,” an official of the ministry’s Department of Labor Skill Development and Employment Service told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

Despite the risks, Malaysia is attractive to migrants because it is a relatively easy country to work in, the fisherman said.

“The main reason so many choose to come here is because we don’t have money. Most of us don’t even have enough to make a passport,” he said.

“In my case, the employer sent some money to me in Laos to apply for a passport and pay for all my documents. If I had gone to, say, South Korea instead, I would have had to pay for everything myself. I’d have to borrow money to fly over there,” he said.

The fisherman said that he came to Malaysia via a land route through Thailand. The trip cost 100,000 baht (U.S. $2,800), which he repays through deductions from his paycheck. 

“More than one thousand Lao fishermen are working here …, about 60 percent more than there were last year. Most of these new fishermen, who have never even been on the sea, come from the Vientiane suburbs or from nearby Borikhamxay province,” he said.

Another Lao fisherman told RFA how he came to work in Malaysia.

“Nobody told me to come here, but I came because in Laos, there are no jobs and labor is cheap,” he told RFA. 

“I didn’t come here via the Lao Labor Department. At first, I came to Malaysia as a tourist. I took a bus to the town of Nong Khai in Thailand, then I traveled by bus to Pattani Province in southern Thailand where my employer’s bus was waiting to take me to Malaysia. Then, in Malaysia, my employer obtained all the necessary documents including a work permit for me, so I can work,” the second fisherman said.

A third fisherman told RFA that the pay was good.

“We make at least 3,700 ringit, or about 30,000 baht [$836] per month, but in some months when the catch is big, we can earn up to 7,000 ringit, or 50,000 baht [$1,581],” he said.

“There are about 100 Lao fishermen working here … That’s not a lot. There are also Thais, Burmese and Cambodians too and we mingle together,” he said.

The Lao government is making efforts to protect the migrants by making it easier for them to go to Malaysia legally, thereby making them harder to exploit.

Authorities are collecting information in hopes of entering into an agreement with Malaysia to allow Laos to send more workers, Anousone Khamsingsavath, the director of the Department of Labor Skill Development and Employment Service, said at an August 2021 meeting that discussed workers’ rights in Southeast Asia.

He acknowledged widespread exploitation in Malaysia’s fishing and seafood processing industries.

Lao fishermen in Malaysia support the effort between the countries to reach an agreement, because it would increase the likelihood that their rights would be protected, a fourth Lao fisherman told RFA.

BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news source, sent inquiries on this issue to the Malaysian government but received no response.

BN reached out to MY govt officials for comment but didn’t receive an answer.

Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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