By Sumisha Naidu, Malaysia Correspondent, Channel NewsAsia
KUALA LUMPUR: Back in Nepal, Raju Khadka was a junior officer in the army, and even served on a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti. His friend Bijram Darai was an electrician.
Both men are now security guards at a residential area in Malaysia. Despite the long hours and low pay, the money they earn in Malaysia is still better than what they could earn back home in Nepal – one of Asia’s poorest nations.
Scores of people from Bangladesh to Indonesia come to work in Malaysia every year.
According to the World Bank, there are 2.1 million registered foreign workers in Malaysia, and there is likely to be more than 1 million undocumented foreign workers here. They often work in industries such as construction and security.
But Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi says the nation is trying to scale back its reliance on foreign workers. “We put out 25 billion ringgit (US$5.8 billion) every year employing domestic help, and I think even a larger amount goes to hiring other types of foreign workers,” he said.
“From the figures we obtained as of this October, as much as 38 billion ringgit (US$8.8 billion) was sent overseas by these foreign workers and this is a loss of foreign exchange earnings if Malaysians are willing to do jobs in the dirty, dangerous and difficult sectors.”
However, two main challenges need to be overcome before that can happen. Many Malaysians simply do not want to do such jobs while employers prefer to hire much cheaper foreign workers.
Contrary to the Minister’s goal of reducing the size of the foreign workforce, a World Bank report released in December claimed that employing more low-skilled foreign workers could actually be a boon for the nation, potentially increasing Malaysia’s GDP and even creating new jobs for locals.
“It’s a positive force that can realise its full benefits if it’s managed well,” said Dr Ulrich Zachau, country director of Southeast Asia at the World Bank.
“I think managing this well does mean that immigration policy and management focus on the human resource angles so they can meet the needs of Malaysian employers, businesses here in Malaysia, and that the workers themselves, Malaysian workers as well as vulnerable immigrant workers, are protected.”
This is something the government is working on amid ongoing concerns about unscrupulous employers and unfair working practices and conditions. Malaysia plans to roll out regulations to that effect by mid-2016, enforcing strict liability for employers who fail to meet international labour standards.