Malaysia’s labour woes

Updated On: Sep 28, 2007

The issue of fair treatment of migrant labour has always been a sensitive topic with Malaysia and the sending countries, especially Indonesia.

Of late, the shameful treatment of Bangladeshi and Indonesian workers has made headlines –ranging from the lack of food, shelter and wages for legitimate migrant labourers with employment permits, to the deportation, jailing and caning for illegal labourers. An embarrassed Malaysia has promptly promised to make amends.

This demands more than cursory tweaks of the present labour system - the simplistic deportation of illegal workers and importation of legal ones. A deeper revision of Malaysia’s policies on migrant labour is necessary if it wants to continue on its fast-track developmental course. In addition, the discriminatory social mindset must also be tackled, and deeper examination of issues of education and skill training has to be done. This comes on top of another Malaysia’s burgeoning problem -  while it does not have enough workers for many of sectors of industries, it is also not creating enough white collar jobs for all its university graduates. The government has been grappling with thousands of applicants per job in the past few years, and the public sector with all its expansion would still have difficulties absorbing all the graduates.

Bloomberg reported that Malaysia’s recent campaign to deport 600,000 illegal workers may contradict its aspiration to be a developed nation. Without migrant labour, Malaysia will not have enough people to work in its vital industries, especially as “the government invests $57 billion in agriculture, construction and manufacturing to sustain economic growth through 2010”. Presently, about 1.9 million overseas migrants (mainly Indonesians) make up for 17 percent of the workforce and Malaysia has a real dependence on them. Ismail Abd. Rahim, director general of the Human Resources Ministry, said that the agriculture and construction sectors are now facing labour shortages; while Suhaimi Ilyas, chief economist at Aseanbankers Malaysia, predicted that “service industries like hotels and restaurants may be hit next”.

Foreign labourers are viewed with suspicion in Malaysia. Ishak Mohamed, head of the Immigration Department's enforcement division, has insisted that illegal workers must be prevented as they “cost the government money in the form of unpaid levies, disease and social problems, such as crimes”. As such, unlawful draconian practices are ironically used to keep the legal ones in check, such as confiscating the workers’ passports, confining them to the workplace and withholding payments until contracts are complete. Moreover, employers can easily cancel work permits, putting the migrant labourers in a vulnerable situation of being declared “illegal” and without recourse to legal redress.

Going even deeper to the root of the problem, political commentators have argued that Malaysia’s superiority complex with regard to Indonesians has compounded tensions. However, Indonesia also needs to do its part to smoothen bilateral ties.

Ade Armando, a communications lecturer at the University of Indonesia, said, “Malays in Malaysia always think of Javanese [Indonesians] as ethnically inferior compared with them. This is justified by the fact that the Indonesians they mostly see are labourers or maids.” Armando added that instead of displaying their anger against Malaysia, young people in Jakarta can channel their energies to campaign for the Indonesian government to create more job opportunities and raise living standards.

Dr. Rizal Sukma, deputy executive director of Jakarta's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, recently wrote in the Jakarta Post that the idea that “Indonesia and Malaysia are bangsa serumpun –two nations coming from the same roots” has given rise to irrational expectations and hence serious misunderstanding as national differences are bigger than people realize. To overcome this, “sentimental closeness” generated by the serumpun concept must be curbed and the “rational foundation” of bilateral ties –security of Melaka Straits, economic cooperation and building the concept of moderate Islam, to name a few –be promoted.

Therefore, this bilateral relationship has to be built upon a rational foundation, not upon a sentimental or romanticised base, as implied in the serumpun concept. And that rational foundation should be imperative when managing converging and diverging national interests between the two countries. This will help overcome misunderstandings and produce less bilateral friction.  (27 September 2007)


No food, shelter for foreign workers (NST, 25 September 2007)

Stampede for govt. jobs in Malaysia (Straits Times, 24 September 2007)

50 Bangladeshi workers abandon job due to heat (Daily Express News, 23 September 2007)

Migrant workers in limbo at Kuala Lumpur airport waiting for employers to collect them (AP, 23 September 2007)

Discord In Indonesia-Malaysia Relations: The root of the problem (Jakarta Post, 20 September 2007)

Malaysia sets up camp at airport car park: report (AFP, 14 September 2007)

As Malaysia exports illegal workers, employers go short (Bloomberg News, 13 September 2007)

Class clash mars Malaysia-Indonesia ties (Asia Times Online, 6 September 2007)