Only authorities allowed to demand travel document for official purposes, say lawyers.

PETALING JAYA: Two lawyers have urged authorities to look into the plight of migrant workers who are being forced to surrender their passports in return for employment.

Lawyer Datuk Sankara Narayanan said depriving migrant workers of their passports restricts their movements.

“Retaining passports seems to be a standard condition for their employment. However, the action by employers to withhold the passports of migrant workers is a breach of international law.

“The workers would be unable to move around freely on their off days. This leads to mental anguish and frustration in the long term,” he said.

Another lawyer, Derek Fernandez, said according to Section 12(1)(f) of the Passports Act 1966, an employer cannot take possession of an employee’s passport unless it is for a specific reason such as visa renewal.

“The passport can be retained by government authorities for investigation or prosecution of an offence.

“Government authorities can also request the passport for identity verification if it is needed,” Fernandez said, adding that all these are legitimate reasons.

However, he noted there is no doubt some (migrant workers) are misled, taken advantage of or have to pay lump sum of “unofficial” money to unscrupulous agents, some of whom are in the migrant workers’ countries, just to secure their jobs in Malaysia.

“Yet once they land in Malaysia, their freedom of movement is restricted because their passports are retained by local agents or their employers.”

Some migrant workers are even given wrong information as to the actual expectations of their prospective employers, working hours and conditions.

“And to have their passports retained by third parties means the migrant workers will face difficulty in seeking help from Malaysian authorities if they are exploited.”

Derek said employers who are desperate for workers may also be misled and taken advantage by unscrupulous agents who supply those who are unskilled and unable to handle the jobs or tasks assigned to them.

This is sometimes used to justify withholding the passports of migrant workers.

“On the other hand, some migrant workers have no intention of fulfilling their contracts and as a result, once they land in Malaysia, they run away to illegally work elsewhere.

“Holding migrant workers’ passports in a way restricts them from doing such things and offers the employer or agent some security, even though it is against the law.”

Derek suggested that mandatory insurance be required to ensure migrant workers who wish to leave their employment for any reason can do so as the insurance policy will compensate for the financial losses incurred by the employer.

He said having the insurance policy would also mean that employers have no reason to retain the passports as a security measure to ensure their workers do not leave their jobs.

Ahmad Badrul, a 40-year-old Bangladeshi who works as a security guard at a condominium in Puchong, said his passport has been held by his employer ever since he started working in Malaysia in 2020.

“To work here as a security guard, my passport has to be given to my employer and I can only retrieve it from him if I have an emergency which requires me to return to my country.

“Not only that, I have to be accompanied by my employer’s agent if I have to attend any medical check-ups. I feel as though I am being closely monitored at all times,” he said.

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