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?
Malaysia’s policies toward migrant labor are as fickle and confused as ever. The country’s latest five-year development plan, unveiled last May, set a high-priority goal of reducing dependency on foreign migrant labor; it set a target of reducing the share of foreigners in the workforce to 15%. They now account for 25-35%, a wide range that reflects varying estimates of the number of undocumented workers.
Just a month after the presentation of the Eleventh Malaysia Plan, Minister of Home Affairs Zahid Hamidi talked of a proposal to bring in 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers over three years. The plan was widely denounced by organized labor, civil society and even employers as undermining long-term labor policy objectives and negating measures to register and formalize undocumented workers. Information on the exact number of workers to be imported and the sectors demanding such labor was left opaque.
The government, insisting there remains unfulfilled demand for workers in so-called “dirty, dangerous and difficult” jobs that Malaysian workers will not touch, forged ahead. Meanwhile, a hike in the annual levy charged employers for each foreign worker on their payroll was announced and then promptly rescinded after a public outcry.
On Feb. 18, Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding with Bangladesh for the import of 1.5 million workers. The next day, Human Resources Minister Richard Riot remarked that some of the workers might be sent to third countries while Zahid simultaneously announced a freeze on the importation of Bangladeshi workers. His action probably assuaged to some extent the displeasure of parties including the Malaysian Employers Federation, which had publicly decried the absence of government consultation during the negotiations with Bangladesh.
The reasons behind the push for a massive influx of migrant workers remain unclear. Without a proper rationale or consultation, it is no surprise that the plan has stalled, although the announced suspension of the government-to-government agreement may be temporary.
The episode underscores the importance of systemic reform and integrated perspectives. Migrant worker policy ought to be overseen by the same officials responsible for labor policy. The government’s inconsistency on this has been a long-standing issue, but the latest debacle drives home the importance of a firm resolution. The most ardent proponent of the plan to import 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers has been the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees work visas and immigration matters. Labor outsourcing agencies and migrant worker allocations, currently under the ministry’s purview, would undeniably fit better with the Ministry of Human Resources.
The flimsy justification for massive foreign labor inflows speaks volumes. Employers were not asked for input while oil palm plantations have noted that labor shortages and projected demand are likely to be far below the levels cited by officials discussing the Bangladesh plan.
The spotlight is now on the highly profitable businesses who process incoming migrant workers and their influence. The concern is whether migrant labor policy is being driven by the profit maximizing interests of those who pocket lucrative gains from service fees, visa processing and medical checkup charges and other migrant entry procedures rather than labor market needs.
Malaysia must also grapple critically and earnestly with the question of its preference for migrant workers. Employers assert that Malaysian workers refuse to take up the dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs that foreign workers are willing to do and the government tends to side with them. Workers however contend that if wages were higher, more Malaysians would do these jobs.
Throughout this debate, it is taken for granted that certain jobs are intrinsically dirty, dangerous and difficult, with scant consideration given to making them less labor-intensive and more mechanized. This would entail investments that companies are unwilling to make unless competitors also do so and the public sector has refrained from taking the lead.
Sustaining employment of Malaysians in elementary manual jobs will require more than higher wages. The entrenched labor agency and outsourcing service sectors, which operate on the basis of worker vulnerability and employment insecurity, bias the system toward foreign workers who put up not just with low wages, but also with precarious work conditions. Moreover, migrant workers continue to be recruited on false promises of good jobs, then forced into menial work and harsh conditions upon arrival.
The federal government has not effectively leveraged the public procurement system, for instance, through raising hourly wages and promoting gainful part-time employment, particularly for young workers though they ostensibly rank high on the policy agenda. Sometime in the foreseeable future, Malaysia will be an aging society. The country would do well to begin putting into place favorable conditions for part-time work by senior citizens, particularly in the service sector. High hourly wages and conducive employment terms will be crucial to such efforts.
Flip-flopping and caprice now disconcertingly reign over this major policy area. Let’s hope for a more coherent, consistent and integrated approach, involving engagement by government, companies and labor, to resolve Malaysia’s complex workforce issues.
Source: Nikkei Asian Review
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