They will also not be able to find any form of employment due to the depressed economic conditions, and it is best to send them home
pic by TMR FILE
THE migrant issues are becoming more critical and controversial over the past few weeks during the lockdown. Malaysia has had a big problem with foreign workers since the 1990s due to corruption and inconsistent labour policies that encouraged a large influx of undocumented workers.
The issue has also dented the nation’s image with the discovery of the mass graves near the Malaysia-Thai border, in addition to charges of human trafficking, high number of occupational injuries and death involving foreign workers, as well as charges of ill-treatment in immigration detention camps and other accusations.
Presently, it has been estimated that there are about seven million foreign workers and migrants, and only a fraction of them are legally documented and pay levies to the government.
The government collects a meagre amount from the levies, but has to bear an enormous burden. Even the Fomema-registered doctors profit more than the government, not to mention the agents, human traffickers, the police, Immigration, RELA (People’s Volunteer Corps) and local government enforcement personnel.
When the lockdown is lifted, hundreds of thousands of Malaysian workers and business operators are going to face the grim prospect of unemployment, pay cuts, retrenchment and loss of income.
The millions of foreigners are going to add to their problems and cause socio-economic chaos. Employers favouring foreign workers for whatever jobs are available could spark a crisis and the government will be hard put to address it. The foreigners are now involved in business, freelancing jobs and a lot of other sectors, which should be reserved for Malaysian citizens.
The foreigners are not confined to the so-called 3D (dangerous, dirty and difficult) jobs in construction, plantation or agriculture. Most of the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) employ foreign workers due to the lower wages. Now, with Malaysians out of work in large numbers, foreign workers accepting lower salaries could become the target for various political groups and NGOs.
The government needs to understand that the post-lockdown normal is going to be tough for the citizens, especially the B40 (bottom 40% income group) and M40 (middle 40%), as the declining socio-economic conditions are going to persist for a long time, possibly a few years.
During the economic boom or better off years, Malaysians might not have been concerned about the foreign workers, but not now when they are facing hard times. Additionally, it is feared that the Covid-19 infections could remain endemic among the migrants and foreign workers due to their poor accommodation and hygiene.
The political situation in the country is also not very stable, and workers, unemployed and without income, could turn out to be a big social problem.
Due to these reasons, it will be better to come with an amnesty programme, more effective and far-reaching than before, which will see the repatriation of millions of undocumented workers to their homelands, and put a drastic end to these problems that have been plaguing the nation for the last three decades.
There must be no conditions attached for the amnesty to ensure that millions are sent back. The government might have to bear part if not the whole expenses of sending them back. If the government could come with a RM260 billion economic stimulation package, why can’t it pay for the transport of the foreign workers to their countries?
The economic stimulation package will work better for locals if the number of foreign workers is reduced. The government has no alternative, but will be forced to do this due to pressure from Malaysian workers and their unions.
The millions of foreigners will also not be able to find any form of employment due to the depressed economic conditions, and it is best to send them home. The billions of ringgit saved by way of foreign remittances will also help revive the economy faster, and Malaysians will be forced to do jobs they previously shunned or face hunger and starvation. This will be the new reality.
In the future, the government has to address the foreign workers issue holistically and comprehensively to ensure there is no repeat of the fiasco. Previously, the government had to give in to demands by various sectors when the economy expanded without the corresponding availability of local workers.
There is no need for this economic expansion any more when it cannot be sustained by the people of the country and when it has to rely much on others. States like Selangor are already over-developed and over-populated, leading to higher cost of living burdening the people. The so-called economic expansion has mainly benefitted the capitalists and the rich, but the B40 remains rooted where they were, and the gulf between the rich and poor is one of the world’s worst according to various surveys.
The B40 are mere spectators of development. During the lockdown, Malaysians saw the grim face of poverty all around them, but previous governments had been boasting that poverty has been almost eradicated in Malaysia.
Poverty cannot be fully overcome when there are millions of foreign workers depressing wages, increasing the cost of living, competing with locals for jobs and business. What is the point of allowing local or foreign entrepreneurs to open a business or factory when 90% of the employees are foreigners?
What multiplier or spillover effect is there for the locals? Will we not be better off without this? Malaysia cannot keep on expanding its economy depending on the foreign workers like what is happening in the Middle East, where the volatility of the petrodollar suddenly puts a country back to square one.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the need for creative and innovative ways, such as working from home, e-commerce and e-learning. Artificial intelligence and automation are the two technologies that are going to help revive the post Covid-19 economies, very much like machines during previous eras.
Malaysian industrial operators will have to automate their factory processes and wean themselves off foreign workers’ dependence. More educated Malaysians can be employed when automation is preferred by factory operators.
The Malaysian government has to do away with the “Malaysia My Second Home’, visa on arrival, calling visas for foreign workers, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) cards and other incentives and privileges that are easily abused and add to the problems facing Malaysians.
Malaysians already have an overdose of problems — political, social, economic, racial, religious and others. Why do we need to construct so many buildings and houses, so many factories and SMEs, so many plantations, so much over-development, when there are not enough local workers?
Malaysians were a happy people at one time, according to our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Now, even a five-figure salary is not enough to meet the cost of living which has come from over-development of the country.
During the lockdown period, even the rich were squeamish about the loss of income. During the lockdown, only the multinationals and large firms did not make much noise, whereas the SMEs were crowing their heads off with a litany of complaints about loss of business, bankruptcies, financial losses, retrenchments etc, as if they had no reserves or savings even after all these years to tide them over for a month or two.
It is time the government initiated a contingency fund contributed by the employers to help them face any eventuality like the Covid- 19 pandemic. The employers can withdraw their contribution plus interest after every 10 years. Malaysians must learn to live within their means and be happy about it.
Happiness is one sure way to get rid of the Covid-19 virus infection!
Sg Buloh, Selangor
The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.