Can locals fill the void left by foreign workers?

IF you had paid a visit to wet markets in Kuala Lumpur recently, you would have noticed a banner that reads “hiring of foreign workers are strictly not allowed”.

Over the years Malaysia has introduced various policies aimed at reducing its dependency on migrant workers, with the latest being restriction which allows employment of foreign workers only in three sectors, namely construction, agriculture and plantation.

But can Malaysians fill the void in job market as a result of this policy?

The move has recently drawn brickbats from many quarters particularly employers and unions.

Official data from the Immigration Department, Ministry of Home Affairs, showed that 1.98 million regular migrant workers were employed in Malaysia by Sept 2019. This, according to the United Nations Malaysia in 2019, constituted about 20 per cent of the country’s labour force.

According to TRIANGLE in Asean, Malaysian economy relied heavily on migrant workers to perform low-skilled jobs.

Free Malaysia Today in an Aug 4, 2020 report quoted the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) as saying the restriction of foreign workers to only three sectors is tantamount to economic suicide.

Urging the government to reconsider the policy, MTUC secretary-general J. Solomon reportedly said: “The reality is that foreign labour is deeply embedded in Malaysia’s economy and confining migrant labourers to work in just three sectors seems to be an act of economic self-immolation by the government.”

He further stated that assuming locals would be willing to take up 3D (dangerous, dirty and difficult) jobs on the same terms and conditions as migrant workers was ignorant of the current high cost of living and the revised poverty line by the government.

Citing unemployment rate that barely changed from the beginning of the year till now, Solomon noted that employers had failed to woo locals to fill the void left by foreigners with better wages and perks.

“Many documented foreign workers are often paid the minimum wage, while perks such as mandatory rest days, overtime or medical benefits are rare and inadequate,” the FMT report quoted him as saying.

The situation is worse for those who do not possess any document and hired illegally. They are paid less than RM1,000, he added as per the report.

Focus Malaysia in a Feb 16, 2013 article titled “foreign workers’ grip on economy” highlighted that the grip of foreign workers on Malaysia’s economy was alarming.

According to the article, the country’s dependence on them is such that even if a quarter of them were to pack up and leave, key sec­tors such as manufacturing, plantations and construction will be crippled.

SMI Association of Malaysia (now SME Association of Malaysia) then president Teh Kee Sin reportedly said that between 60% and 80% of SMEs produc­tion lines were manned by foreign workers.

Meanwhile, another manpower recruiter said that while government regulations pertaining to foreign work­ers and the source countries changed regularly, one thing that hasn’t changed was the fact that we need the foreign workers more than they need us.

According to the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) then executive director Samsuddin Bardan, Malaysian companies would prefer to hire Malaysians even at higher than minimum wages, but there are simply not enough locals who are willing to do the “3D” [dirty, dangerous and difficult] jobs that foreign workers perform.


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