Malaysia is one of Asia's biggest employers of foreign labour. But recently, cases of deaths, abuse and forced labour have come to light. What is going on? Who is protecting these migrant workers?
Written by Teh Wei Soon
6.7 million, that’s more than the population of some Malaysian ethnic groups and what’s surprising is they are not even Malaysians but the estimated total migrant workforce in our country, including illegals.
This figure was announced by Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri Richard Riot in November last year and he pointed out that the number is expected to climb as the demand for foreign workforce remains high, Bernama reports.
Given the continued dependence that Malaysians have on foreign workers with Indonesians making up over 50% of the registered legal foreign workforce of 2.1 million, it comes as no surprise for the Indonesian Manpower and Transmigration Minister Muhammad Hanif Dhakiri to mention that a discussion on increasing wages for Indonesians working in Malaysia will be on the table in upcoming bilateral talks in Kuala Lumpur next month.
After all, if the demand is not there, the need to ensure continued supply of Indonesian workforce would not warrant such high level scrutiny.
In an earlier bilateral meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Muhammad Hanif in Indonesia last week, both countries had already hinted on issues they need to iron out next month including workers passports, days off, legal placement channels, and the announcement by Zahid of a proposed single window system to register foreign workers online starting next month
In fact, the proposal of pay hike for Indonesian workers working in Malaysia is not a new issue as the Indonesian government had previously asked for their domestic workers wages to be increased from RM700 to RM1,200, which Deputy Human Resource Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Mutalib had side-stepped by pointing out that the proposed salary increase was too high compared with the minimum salary of RM900 for our own local workers.
Clearly this recurring issue of wage hike will continue as long as demand outstrips supply.
With increasingly uncertain global economic conditions, weak currency and slowing growth projections, are Malaysian employers still willing to fork out more for migrant, unskilled labour or might this serve as the catalyst to reduce our dependence on foreign labour?
The latest Global Wage Report 2014/15 from the International Labour Organization (ILO) show that wages growth worldwide have stagnated with trends in Asia showing a downturn.
Given such unfavourable market conditions, why would Indonesian choose to pressure our government on this issue now? Could a pay hike solve existing problems of misappropriation, underpayment, mistreatment and the continued influx of undocumented workers?
Malaysian Digest reached out to concerned stakeholders, NGOs, employers as well as the general public to gauge their views.
Malaysian Employers Not Ready
When contacted by Malaysian Digest to comment on the matter, Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan (pic) said the proposal of increase in wages for Indonesians working in Malaysia by Indonesian authorities is not a timely move for the time-being, considering the weak domestic economic conditions and many other interrelated factors.
“[The proposal of wage hike] can be something difficult for employers in Malaysia to absorb, and I believe most of them are not ready for it. At present, employers in Malaysia are facing a multitude of challenges such as survival problems and the like,” Shamsuddin observed.
Comparing the minimum wages between local workers and foreign workers, he remarked: “Currently, minimum wage of our own local workers in the Peninsula is RM900 per month or equivalent to RM4.33 per hour. In fact, some Indonesian and foreign workers from other countries can earn as high as RM 1,000 to RM1,500 a month here,” adding that there is no such need [to increase the pay] at the moment.
“When it comes to productivity, the performances of most Indonesian workers are considerably low especially in their first one or two year here. Training should be given to them first before anything else,” he noted.
Shamsuddin, however, said: “In the event that Indonesian authorities persist in imposing the pay hike, it should only be introduced to the new workers (new hire) rather than the existing ones,” adding that this can provide the employers more flexibility and time to make the necessary adjustments and adapt to the changes accordingly.
“It is important to facilitate entry of Indonesian workers through legal channels and through just one channel. At the moment, most Malaysian employers are recruiting and hiring foreign workers through third party and that is why the processing fee is unreasonably high,” he stressed further.
Not Right For Indonesia To Ask For Pay Hike Without Consulting The Host Country
For years, many grassroots labour NGOs in the country have worked diligently towards developing networks and outreach programmes that can speak directly for migrant workers. Apart from their quest for an amicable solution to the many issues besetting foreign workers, these NGOs also work to look after the interest and rights of the employers as well as the welfare of the workers.
In an interview with Malaysian Digest, Malaysian Maid Employers Association (MAMA) president Engku Ahmad Fauzi Engku Muhsein (pic) asserted that the proposal of salary hike for Indonesian workers will certainly pose new burdens for Malaysian employers given the current economic situation and the tightening labour market in the country.
“As an employer, the [proposal of pay hike] for Indonesian workers is without doubt a new burden to the employers in different industries, if implemented.
“Firstly, I am of the opinion that any increase in salary for these workers should abide by the pay scale system that we have earlier agreed upon. Second of all, any pay hikes for Indonesian workers should only be considered and are contingent upon satisfactory job performance,” he opined, concurring with the thoughts of MEF’s Shamsuddin.
Referring to Indonesian president Jokowi’s announcement earlier this year the country would consider to stop sending its maids abroad, Engku Ahmad said: “While Indonesian authorities have every right to protect the welfare of their workers here, we also have the same right to welcome workers from other neighbouring countries.”
“The government could take various measures by employing maids from other neighbouring countries to address the short-term contingencies. We must not overly dependent on one source country for maids,” he added.
Meanwhile, Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies (PAPA) president Jeffrey Foo (pic) also shared his insights with Malaysian Digest on the matter when contacted.
“It’s not the right way [for Indonesian government] to deal with this issue. How can a foreign country decide on the wage scale of guest workers in the host country?” Foo asked.
“It is the Labour Department and Human Resource Ministry who would determine the wage scale of foreign workers, especially the unskilled ones. They must always fulfil and abide by the local (host country) requirements,” he said, adding that Indonesian government should also have to look into the minimum wage fixed by the host country before setting their own.
Foo, nevertheless, said: “It is not wrong for Indonesian government to propose a pay hike for their workers in Malaysia, but it would be better for the two countries to look for a certain mechanism or set up a task force to discuss this issue.
“There are a lot of factors to take into consideration before determining the salary scale of their workers,” stressed Foo.
How Much Do Indonesian Workers Take Home In Actual Pay?
There is no denying that foreign workers in Malaysia sometimes have it quite bad. From being treated as less than fellow human beings to real physical abuse cases, detention centres and even deaths, they risk life and limb daily to make a living or support their families back home. Be that as it may, have you ever wondered how much Indonesian workers who do the 3D labour (dirty, dangerous and difficult) in Malaysia earn?
Malaysian Digest went down onto the streets, as well as asked some employers, foreign worker agents and NGOs to find out the pay scale Indonesian workers earn in Malaysia in various sectors. Below is what we found out:
Therefore, Indonesian workers here are actually taking home pay commensurate to their skills and qualifications, similar to Malaysians with the same skill set. Given their same skill sets, they definitely would not be able to earn even that amount back in their own country given the higher population demand and jobless rate, so who is complaining?
A palm oil plantation estate owner, who only wanted to be identified as Leong, 58, told us that he currently has 12 Indonesian workers and said the proposal of pay hike by Indonesian government is unrealistic and unacceptable.
“For me, I would not agree with the increase of wage for Indonesian workers, given the poor economic situation in Malaysia at the moment. For the past six months or so, we earned less than before due to the plunging of palm oil price. How is it possible for us to afford the pay hike [for Indonesian workers]?” he asked.
“Many people misunderstood that the oil palm has the highest yield of all plants and it is very lucrative. In fact, harvesting palm oil is not only time consuming but it is labour intensive as well. We need a lot of workers, and the wages paid to them make up a large proportion of our earnings. So I think the proposal of pay hike is not a right move, at least for now,” added Leong.
Another entrepreneur, Ivan, who operates a small recycling factory in Pundut, Perak, echoing the thoughts of Leong, said: “It is unfair for Indonesian government to ask for pay hike since the minimum wage local workers get is already low.”
“Moreover, they are unskilled workers and some of them do not even have working experiences in the related industry,” adding that employers in Malaysia would surely look for other sources of manpower if the pay hike for Indonesian workers is implemented,” said the 33-year-old.
As observed by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid: “Malaysia has been resolving problems with Indonesia through informal and personal approaches and not only via formal channels,” saying informal relations can help resolve many problems which sometimes could not be settled formally.
He said this followed the many similarities between the two countries which made the problems between them unique, and this includes matters related to Indonesian workforce in Malaysia.
This sets the tone of the ongoing negotiations on Indonesian workers salaries going forward as many factors and stakeholders will have to be consulted to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.
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