ADUN SPEAKS | The idea to reduce the considerable presence of foreign workers, both documented and undocumented, is an excellent one. The fact that this has been accepted in the Pakatan Harapan manifesto underlines the importance and urgency the present government has accorded to this problem.
Out of the nearly 15 or 16 million workers in the country, it is estimated that nearly 30 percent of the workforce is made up of foreign workers. In fact, the presence of foreign workers had increased under the BN government due to a variety of reasons.
It is common knowledge that during the BN period, many relatives, friends and cronies of BN politicians were given licenses and permits to import and distribute foreign workers to the highest bidders.
The provision of permits to import foreign workers from countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and others to individuals and companies became a lucrative source of revenue for those who allegedly used the apparatus of the state mechanisms to enrich themselves.
The whole process of foreign labour importation reeked of corruption, blatant abuse of power, exploitation of those who required the services of workers, and not the least, imposed inhumane conditions on those who were brought to work in the country.
Division and provision of permits for foreign workers assigned to the different economic sectors were a mere formality, as the workers, once brought into the country, moved with considerable ease from one sector to another due to corruption and greed. Monitoring mechanisms introduced to curb such migration proved to be a meaningless exercise.
Given the uninterrupted flow of foreign cheap labour both documented and undocumented, employers had no problem in engaging them and at the same time did not need the services of local workers.
The government bought into the arguments of the employers in the country that local labour was difficult to procure, or that they were not interested, and convinced the government that foreign workers were an integral part of the whole economy.
It is not that the state did not suspect the real motives of employers, but since the permits to import foreign labour became an effective source of patronage for their supporters and cronies, there was no reason for the politicians to really question the motives of employers, both genuine and not.
Study what went wrong
Harapan has come to federal power at a rather opportune time in the country's history. The fact that the Ministry of Human Resources has made it a point to think of reducing the large presence of foreign workers is an excellent one. I have no problem with this rather significant stand.
However, before any policy measures can be enacted, there is an urgent need to examine what really went wrong during the BN period; how were the permits to import foreign labour abused, who were the beneficiaries, what were their connections with some BN politicians, why employers had to pay exorbitant sums to get the services of foreign labour, and the forms of misdeeds and abuse of power.
Unless and until there is systematic and comprehensive study of the foreign labour utilisation during the BN period, spanning many decades, there is possibility that policy measures adopted by Harapan to curb or reduce the presence of foreign workers in different economic sectors might not have the desirable effect.
Minister of Human Resources M Kulasegaran might have good intentions to start off by insisting that by July 1, 2018, all cooks employed in restaurants must be locals, with a grace period of nearly six months until December 31, 2018 to comply.
However, it must be remembered that about two years ago when Penang imposed a similar ruling by the local authorities, it was meant for hawker stalls and not restaurants. In Penang, restaurants were spared. For any policy to be adopted and implemented, two things must be clear. First, whether the policy is sound – in other words, it must not impose hardship on Malaysians. Second, whether the policy or measure could be implemented with the expected high level of voluntary compliance from society.
The policy announced for restaurants to employ local cooks might be a sound one in the long run, with the ultimate objective of reducing foreign workers. Right now, restaurants and hawker stalls employ a large number of foreign cooks. There is no question about it. Something ought to be done to ensure that at some point in time, local cooks are employed. But then, an abrupt announcement might do more harm than good.
I think the Human Resources Ministry must prepare the employers for this eventual possibility and not announce that they have to comply by the beginning of July. The six months grace period might not mean anything to the government if effective implementation ends up being problematic. Why do we have to alienate a segment of society that had supported Harapan to clean the mess of corruption and misdeeds of BN?
While I am all for the ultimate reduction of foreign workers in the country, I think a long-term policy framework must be adopted on the basis of systematic study for the reduction of foreign workers without imposing undue and unnecessary hardship on Malaysians.
The Harapan government being, qualitatively different from BN, must prepare Malaysians to helm the economy on the basis of major transformation of society with renewed emphasis on the creation of a skilled labour force with high wages.
P RAMASAMY is Penang deputy chief minister (II) and Perai assemblyperson.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.