The cost of legality : navigating labour mobility and exploitation in Malaysia

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. [Abstract]