Port reform, South Asian migrant workers and spaces of vulnerability in Port Klang, Malaysia

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Abstract

The corporatisation of Port Klang from the mid-1980s onwards was a significant moment in the history of Malaysia's political economy and generated considerable momentum for the changes that were to occur in this late industrialising nation under the leadership of the Barisan Nasional government. In particular, the restructuring of how labour was organised in Malaysia's most significant port became frequently cited both within and outside the country as a model for tripartite labour privatisation and the well-managed divestment of state-owned enterprises. However, in the past decade, the organisation of labour in the port has again changed dramatically. Migrant labour from some of the poorest parts of Asia now makes up the majority of semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Based on fieldwork carried out during 2009 with workers from Bangladesh and Nepal who are employed in Port Klang, this paper suggested that a regulatory vacuum now exists in the port, which means foreign workers are often treated badly and have few avenues for dissent. An analysis of the changing labour regime in Port Klang over time can assist in understanding the contemporary political economy of Malaysia as well as illuminate debates about the spaces of migrant labour more broadly.

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