KUALA LUMPUR: Experts and labor rights advocates are urging the Malaysian government to address labor issues in the country following the decision by the authorities to put a stop to the recruitment of foreign workers.
“We will not allow foreign workers until year-end. They (foreigners) can come as tourists, if they are allowed,” said Malaysian Human Resources Minister M. Saravanan earlier this week in a report from state media Bernama.
The decision was taken amid the high unemployment rate and looming economic recession due to the coronavirus pandemic. The government hopes that the move will give priority to locals to take up vacancies.
The Malaysian Statistics Department forecasts that at least 1 million Malaysians will be out of work by year-end.
“We try to reduce foreign workers in the workforce besides giving priority to locals to secure jobs,” said Saravanan, adding that the government would evaluate the effectiveness of its policy by the end of the year.
As an emerging economy, Malaysia has a high dependency on low-skilled workers. According to the International Labour Organization, about one third of foreign workers are employed in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and construction.
There are about 1.8 million foreign workers in Malaysia, but the number may be higher due to the employment of illegal immigrants and refugees.
Most of the foreign workers come from poorer countries in South Asia and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asia Nations), with the highest numbers from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and India.
Despite the call by the government for Malaysians to take over jobs from foreign workers, experts and labor rights groups warned that the government must address problems in the labor market, especially jobs that have been traditionally deemed as “dirty, dangerous and difficult.”
“We must not fall into the jobs for “Malaysians First” rhetoric as it may backfire later,” said Adrian Pereira, executive director of the North South Initiative, adding that the authorities must thoroughly study labor market needs and the availability of human resources, be they locals or migrants.
He told Arab News that the government must address serious labor and human rights abuses against migrant workers in Malaysia. “Forced labor has been normalized in Malaysian industries. It will not be fair to ask Malaysians to fill in those kinds of jobs,” he said.
Andy Hall, a migrant worker specialist, told Arab News that the government decision to get more locals to replace foreign workers might not be as realistic.
The global surge in demand for rubber gloves created by the COVID-19 crisis has expanded the need for cheap labor as production ramps up. Malaysia is the top supplier to the global rubber gloves market.
“It is normal across the world they say this. They would promote local employment and/or allow existing foreign workers who are irregular or unemployed to change jobs,” Hall said. “Will local Malaysians workers do the work, either at low pay and hard work or will employer/government subsidies pay more?”
However, Malaysian Trades Union Congress Secretary-General J. Solomon is optimistic and welcomed the government’s move but urged it to push for a better deal for blue-collar Malaysians.
“This is a positive move to check Malaysia’s overdependency on migrant workers and hopefully bring about a comprehensive review of the low salaries that would encourage Malaysians to take up the jobs,” he said.
Solomon told Arab News that automation must be made a top priority, as it would stop the vicious cycle of employers hiring legal and illegal migrants on low wages.