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A bloated foreign workforce

12:16 AM September 17, 2016

No one can say for sure how many migrant workers there are in Malaysia. The authorities and individual officials offer their own variable numbers, not because they have something to hide from the public, but simply because no one knows the exact number.

According to the human resources ministry, there are some 2.1 million registered migrant workers—what we call legal foreign workers—in Malaysia. But illegal foreign workers are now around three million.


The estimate of the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) is even more alarming, putting the total number of legal and illegal foreign workers at six million!

Low Kian Chuan, secretary-general of the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Malaysia, seems to echo the MEF estimate, saying that the ratio of legal to illegal foreign workers now stands at 1:2. Given that we now have 2.1 million registered foreign workers, the number of undocumented ones could easily hit four million.

Imagine six million foreign workers walking the streets of a developing country of 31.7 million. How serious could the social problem get? Experts warn that the matter is akin to a time bomb waiting to be detonated. The issues include Islamic State threats, human trafficking, environmental degradation, contagious diseases and moral depravity, among others, which collectively pose a severe challenge to Malaysian administrators. Unfortunately, it is next to impossible for Malaysians to go without these people.

Our economic sector is excessively dependent on foreign workers. When the government froze the entry of new workers, some local furniture factories had to close shop. And when the domestic help runs away, the lady employer may have to take leave from her job to do the house chores and care for her little ones. The raids carried out by immigration authorities on unregistered foreign workers have left many construction sites shorthanded and plantations virtually unmanned. And so on.

It is stipulated in the 11th Malaysian Plan that the number of foreign workers must not exceed 15 percent, or 2.1 million. But with the illegal foreign workers, the number would have reached a jaw-dropping 43 percent, far beyond what the labor market actually requires.

These workers are from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and China, hired mainly in the construction, manufacturing, agricultural and services sectors or as domestic help.

The influx of large numbers of foreigners has seriously impacted the local demographic structure. Registered and unregistered migrants now form the third largest community, at around 19 percent of the total population. With only 2.22 million people, the Indian community has become only the fourth largest.

Last Feb. 18, Human Resources Minister Richard Riot Jaem traveled to Dhaka to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Bangladeshi government for an additional 1.5 million workers over the next three years. This decision has since met with powerful objection from the Malaysian public.

MEF executive director Shamsuddin Bardan said the government should stop bringing in more foreign workers given the current sluggish economy. Moreover, the influx of 1.5 million Bangladeshis will put the strength of the foreign workforce to a staggering 7.5 million. If this were to materialize, their sheer number would overtake that of Chinese Malaysians, currently the second largest ethnic group in the country. And Malaysians are beginning to worry about such an apocalyptic moment.


More recently, the government announced that the private sector can hire security personnel from two other yet-to-be-decided countries, in addition to Nepal.

I recently passed the vastly popular Kuala Lumpur Convention Center Park, and all I could see were foreign workers. I thought I was in Dhaka, which I had once visited. In the past, Kuala Lumpur would be completely hushed during the festive seasons, when most of its residents were back in their respective hometowns. No more! Our streets are now filled with migrant workers.

There was a rare time when I had to take the extremely inconvenient public bus service in town. The bus was fully packed, and I was shocked to find that the only Malaysians onboard were the driver and me. To be very honest, I was a little restless.

Why have so many foreigners flocked to Malaysia for a living, and why do they later decide not to leave?

Malaysia is endowed with a wealth of natural resources and no major natural disasters. Well, there was a minor tremor in East Malaysia not long ago, but volcanoes and typhoons are total strangers to us.

Malaysia is a land of plenty. Getting the stomach filled is never a problem so long as one is willing to work. Another pull factor is that Islam is the official religion and Muslims constitute the dominant community, making the country a veritable paradise for Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Cambodians and Burmese Rohingya.

And Malaysians’ dependence on foreign workers has reached a stage where a total wean from foreign help is squarely impossible. The reason is beyond question: Foreign workers are inexpensive, hardworking and will not resist doing the 3D (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs that locals instantly shun.

It is easy to understand why the number of foreign workers keeps rising. Some Indonesians bring over their families after settling down. Others find their spouses here and decide to make Malaysia their new home. Many good-looking Bangladeshi men marry local women and are subsequently granted resident status.

We cannot deny the positive contributions of these workers to Malaysia’s economy, but unpredictable government policies have made it very difficult for employers to map out long-term hiring policies. This, coupled with lax enforcement and the absence of an effective mechanism to manage migrant workers, has resulted in millions of foreigners outstaying their employment contracts.

In October, the immigration department will take stern action. Under the Immigration Act of 1959, employers found hiring or sheltering overstaying foreign workers and/or holders of counterfeit visas and passports will have their bank accounts and assets seized or frozen.

To be completely self-reliant is a tall task. Good luck, folks!

Pook Ah Lek is editorial director of Sin Chew Daily, Malaysia.

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