There are many contentious issues associated with labour migration in Malaysia, and given the significance of migrant workers to the economy, and their numbers, it is not a problem we can afford to ignore. Migrant workers are 33 percent of our workforce, and 20 percent of our population. More than half the migrant workforce in the country is undocumented.
Certain economic sectors have become so dependent on migrant workers that there’s a fear of collapse if they are withdrawn.
Yet where are we headed? Is this part of some comprehensive, well-thought out plan made in the long-term interests of the country and the people? Is this a temporary phase of Malaysia’s development strategy, which we will ease out of gradually? Or is this part of a longer term plan that will allow for some integration into the Malaysian population?
Nothing is clear, and policy decisions don’t seem to conform to any particular strategy. Instead decisions on important issues are frequently reversed, and seem influenced by short-term considerations. While official rhetoric on integration seems to point to a big no, unmatched by suitable policy, an opposite, not unexpected reality appears to be materialising on the ground.
This new wave of labour migration into the country would doubtless have had the motive of overcoming labour shortage in certain sectors, and would have been managed by the government.
However with privatisation and its profit motive, it has evolved into a lucrative industry, attracting all manner of private agents, middlemen, and rent-seekers in both host and sending countries, all rushing to grab a piece of the cake, and prepared to use any means, legal or illegal, to get a share.
This major shift in the philosophy behind labour migration underlies many of the problems we face today. The supply of labour doesn’t seem to match or be determined by the manpower needs of the country at any time. Likewise, the demand for migrant workers by employers doesn’t seem to be to complement the local workforce, but rather to replace it with cheaper, more pliant labour.
Both Malaysian and migrant workers are victims of this situation which forces down wages, and weakens bargaining power. Migration costs have also increased.
As long as this situation is allowed to continue, some parties are going to profit enormously, but at the expense of workers and the country. Even if the government takes measures to tackle persistent problems like the growing pool of undocumented workers, human trafficking and forced labour, without a total change in the logic of labour migration there will be little chance of success.
This has been amply demonstrated by the repeated failure of government programmes to regularise and rehire the millions of undocumented workers.
There is an urgent need to honestly evaluate the situation and formulate a comprehensive national policy on labour migration that has as its core the good of the country. Such a policy should be based on a reliable assessment of the manpower needs of the country, and respect for the workers’ and human rights of the entire workforce, local and migrant.
Such a policy should remove the profit incentive from labour migration, and help clear among others, Malaysia’s terrible track record in human trafficking and forced labour.
RANI RASIAH is a member of Parti Sosialis Malaysia’s (PSM) central committee and its migrant workers desk.
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