On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Cheap labour at a heavy cost

Playing to the gallery, Jacob skipped bilateral talks
between Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Indonesian President
Megawati Sukarnoputri in Bali last week and flew to Jakarta
instead in ''disgust,'' according to press reports.

Two months ago, Jacob had attacked Trade and Industry Minister Rini Soewandi
whom he accused of discouraging investment by siding excessively with

Without doubt, the deportation exercise against illegal workers has generated
emotional response from the Indonesian media.

Megawati described the issue as a ''top hit'' while the republic's media
continued its hostile stance towards Malaysia.

So it came as no surprise when a deal between Malaysia
and Indonesia
over procedures in the deportation of illegal Indonesian workers could not be
signed during the talks.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar downplayed the issue,
saying ''it was not finalised.''

Besides blaming Hassan, Jacob also accused the Indonesian Ambassador to Malaysia,
saying he had ''done nothing to help the workers.''

The Indonesian Foreign Minister has hit back, saying Jacob had failed to come
up with proposals that would have resulted in both sides signing a memorandum
of understanding.

The Jakarta Post, in its front page report on Friday, claimed that ''thousands
of illegal workers were arriving in various parts of the country from Malaysia,
mostly in poor circumstances.''

''Many came home penniless while others had bruises after suffering caning at
the hands of Malaysian officials, a harsh punishment imposed under the new
immigration law, which came into effect on Aug 1.''

That is, of course, inaccurate. Until Friday, seven foreigners had been ordered
to be caned for entering the country illegally. Of the group, only one is an

One Indonesian TV station, quoting a worker staying in Malaysia,
even alleged that his children had been refused schooling after 20 years in Malaysia.

I find that hard to believe. The common complaint by Malaysians is that
Indonesians, unlike other nationalities, seemed to be able to secure their
permanent resident status rather easily.

So much so that many of us are furious when we read of Indonesians, with PR
status, getting arrested for serious crimes.

There are many well-qualified and law-abiding foreigners, especially those
married to Malaysians, who have problems just extending their stay in this country.

Dr Mahathir has correctly said that Malaysians are feeling ''uneasy'' over the
presence of foreigners in Malaysia,
who now comprise 10% of its 22 million population.

It may be a little inconvenient and even costly, in terms of production costs,
following the amnesty programme but national interest is more important.

We need to balance the interest of the country and that of the private sector.
Never forget that cheap labour comes with a heavy cost.

I think Malaysian taxpayers are already burdened with foreigners who use our
hospitals, schools and other facilities.

Diseases such as tuberculosis which had been wiped out have returned to this
country with the foreign workers.

Then, there is the security cost which Malaysians have to put up with. There
are Indonesians who want to earn an honest living here but there are also many
who commit serious crimes.

The Malay petty traders in Chow Kit have been displaced long ago by the
aggressive Indonesians.

The true cost of using foreign labour, in reality, has not been properly
quantified. For far too long, we have been lenient in allowing the entry of
unskilled foreign workers from Indonesia
and Bangladesh.

Employers, used to making money by paying lower wages to foreigners, should not
ignore these hidden costs.

As the courts punish illegal immigrants who defy the law, every step must be
taken to guard our coastline.

The Home Ministry is reportedly waiting for the delivery of more sophisticated
boats, which is commendable.

At the same time, the authorities must act against black sheep in agencies who
allegedly demand money from foreigners at roadsides, construction sites and

These foreigners are often too timid to report such extortions to the Anti
Corruption Agency but many employers have heard of such stories and because
these allegations are not reported and substantiated, these culprits are
allowed to escape unpunished and perhaps encouraged to carry on with their
corrupt practices.

The government's action against illegal foreign workers can only be successful
and sustained if the public and private sectors seriously do their part to make
it work.