On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

The migrant dilemma

It may not be possible to stop having foreign workers in Malaysia but we do need a systematic method to deal with them as long as we need them here.

MALAYSIANS have a love-hate relationship with migrant workers. We need them to support our industries but we are also uneasy with their presence.

We get upset with Putrajaya for planning to allow 1.5 million Bangladeshis to enter but employers are then furious when the Government announced a freeze on migrant labour.

Malaysians want them to do the menial work – the dirty, dangerous and difficult ones – which we hate to do ourselves but we do not want the presence of migrant workers amongst us at the same time.

We feel uneasy when they are around us because of their social and cultural differences and, let’s face it, some of us look down on them.

So, the Government ran into a perfect storm when it announced that it would sign a memorandum of understanding with Bangladesh to take in 1.5 million Bangla­deshis in stages over a period of three years.

It is a subject that has been widely discussed, even debated, in Parliament, and last week’s signing of the MoU was the climax to a subject that is known to most of us.

But there was an uproar when the deal was inked. It didn’t help when it was later explained that initial reports of having Bangladeshis brought in were untrue.

We were told that the figure consisted of Bangladeshis who had registered to work abroad and they would not necessarily come to Malaysia.

Not many Malaysians I know bought this line and it sounded like a poor attempt to play down a controversy.

Then, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Zahid Hamid announced a total freeze on foreign workers for the time being. He urged all employers to recruit local workers instead.

He said the freeze was temporary until we are able to identify the exact needs of the various industries in the country.

No doubt that it may appear to be a flip-flop decision on the Government’s part but Zahid has done the right thing.

It’s time for the Government to take stock of the actual manpower needs of the various sectors in this country, especially with the economic slowdown.

It is necessary for Putrajaya to listen to the views of the stakeholders as well as ordinary Malaysians who generally feel that there are way too many migrant workers.

It is also perplexing to now hear business groups, which had earlier rapped the Government for agreeing to the inflow of Bangladeshi workers, suddenly criticising the temporary freeze.

Malaysians assume that the freeze involves only migrant workers because what Malaysians want to see are skilled and qualified expatriate workers. It is these affluent professionals that will bring much-needed skills to Malaysia.

But even at this level of workforce, there are specific needs in Malaysia, different from Singapore which is a financial hub and is able to attract the necessary professionals.

We are still a commodity-based country as well as a manufacturing centre. We need a different set of workers.

But there has to be a fine balance because a continued reliance on migrant workers, mostly unskilled and illiterate, would have a serious implication on Malaysia.

In the case of Bangladeshis, we were prepared to let their women come in as well.

The last thing we need are migrant ­workers starting their families here and we know that is already happening.

We may be happy to use cheap labour but there are hidden financial effects, especially on health and education, which will affect taxpayers in the end.

Let’s look at the statistics – the country’s 30 million population has about 20 million in the working age group of 15-64 and according to reports, only about 14 million are employed.

It can be assumed that some five to six million are in school, jobless or unable to find work or be employed.

Possibly, many have also decided to give up working, especially those above the age of 50, preferring to enjoy early retirement.

We are told that Malaysia has 2.1 million legal foreign workers, the Government said. Another 1.7 million foreigners are estimated to be working illegally in Malaysia as of December last year.

So we have about 3.8 million foreigners, and we are sure that does not include the huge number of illegals in Sabah in particular.

The country’s ethnic demography, based on 2010 census figures, comprises Malays (50%), Chinese (22.6%), indigenous (11.8%) and Indians (6.7%) while non-citizens account for 8.2%. In short, foreigners, especially non-citizens, have actually outnumbered the local Indian community.

We do not want Malaysia to be like Dubai, where its foreign workers are more than the local population.

But Zahid has rightly pointed out that our reliance on foreign labour must end if we want to stop having migrant workers in Malaysia.

We have a Catch-22 situation here where, from a business perspective, the cost of labour is low when foreign workers are employed.

Malaysians are not prepared to handle the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs that these workers are prepared to do and employers are refusing to pay minimum wages to locals because they can reap bigger profits – in the name of remaining competitive.

But there is a need to instil in our young that there is no social stigma taking on less “glamorous” jobs so long as it is an honest day’s work. We have so many unemployed graduates who should consider trying out such options rather than wait for the right openings.

In the West, blue-collared workers are paid by the hour with compulsory tips that actually go into the pockets of the waiters, for example.

But in the long run, Malaysia needs a long-term plan to build up knowledge-based and value-added operations in all sectors.

Greater incentives, for example, must be given to manufacturers to introduce automation to end the dependence on unskilled labour.

It is unreasonable to stop having migrant workers but we need a more systematic method of dealing with them where we ­seriously take into account their years of stay in this country as well as the kind of limits we must implement to manage them.