Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia is attempting to curb its addiction to foreign labour, which has brought 2.3 million workers to its shores, but critics say the campaign is causing havoc at home and abroad.
The relatively prosperous Southeast Asian nation relies heavily on men and women from Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and elsewhere to clean homes, construct buildings and gather crops.
But as one of Asia’s largest importers of labour, the government has become increasingly alarmed over the ramifications of having such a big foreign presence in a population of just 27 million.
Migrant workers have been accused of everything from depressing wages to causing crime waves. Peter Chin, Plantation Industries Minister, said recently they were “colonising” Malaysia’s vast agricultural estates.
“People do tend to take the easy option because you have a large reservoir of foreign workers. They might even dump local workers in favour of foreign workers. And that’s not good for us,” said Najib Razak, Deputy Prime Minister .
“You’re attracting industries that depend on low wages. So we are reviewing that, we are reducing the number of foreign workers,” he told AFP in a recent interview.
The government has already announced a ban on foreigners working in “frontline” roles in hotels and airports, and now reportedly plans to cut the migrant workforce to 1.8 million by next year, and 1.5 million by 2015.
However, the campaign to reduce imported labour has been criticised as unplanned, disastrous for industries that depend on it, and insulting to the countries where the workers come from.
The deputy premier said Malaysia was in a “transition period” as it tried to shift from a low-wage model aimed at being competitive against regional neighbours, to a high-wage, knowledge-based economy.
Political commentators applaud the goal, but say there is no plan to carry out the transition which in any case would take a decade or more to achieve.
“Generally there has been very inconsistent migrant management in the country and now they’re trying to rein in all the excesses, and that appears to be very ad hoc as well,” said Charles Santiago, political economist.
Santiago dismissed employers’ arguments that they can’t find enough Malaysians to fill their positions, saying that wages must be raised to make the jobs more attractive.
Artificially low wages threaten to cause new divisions in the multi-ethnic country, which is already suffering from worsening race relations, as it heads into a US-led economic slowdown, he said.
“When the economy’s expanding, this does not cause a crisis between various groups in the country. But this year’s going to be a very topsy turvy year and it’s going to put a stress on the Malaysian family,” he said.
“I think we’re going to see a backlash between local Malaysians and migrant workers.”
Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary opposition leader, also sounded caution over the way the crackdown is being carried out, noting that past campaigns were disastrous and ineffective.
“The economy practically halts each time there is a crackdown as the country is over dependant on foreign labour. And the number of foreign workers, more often than not, increases after the crackdown,” he told AFP.
Khoo Kay Peng from Malaysia’s think tank the Sedar Institute said the campaign was sending the wrong message about the nation.
“What Malaysia should be telling the world is that we’re an open economy, we encourage talent to come here to work, and that at the same time we need to specify the kind of help we need.”
“We must not appear to be inward-looking and introverted.”
Malaysia is also smarting at accusations that foreigners are all too often abused, unpaid and treated inhumanely, and that those responsible are not punished.
Indonesia has some 1.1 million citizens working here and protests over their treatment break out frequently in Jakarta, most recently over the case of Nirmala Bonat, a young maid who was severely burned and bashed by her employer.
The issue dominated a visit by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesian President, this month, during which he called for justice for those who had been abused.
Bangladesh has some 300,000 citizens working here, but a ban was imposed in October after a series of cases of poor treatment including one when employers abandoned 2,000 workers at Kuala Lumpur’s airport.
There was also a furore in India this month when several Malaysian officials said the cabinet had decided to impose a similar freeze, forcing the government to strenuously deny it had any such plans.