PETALING JAYA: Sungai Siput MP Michael Jeyakumar has called for an Asean standard on minimum wages to enable companies in the region to compete on a level field.
According to him, the lack of such a standard gives companies in certain countries a competitive edge and is one of the reasons many Malaysian employers choose to hire illegal immigrants.
“Employers hire illegal foreign workers because they can then pay salaries below the legal minimum wage,” he said. “If you take that away from them, they won’t know how to compete.”
All Asean countries, except Singapore and Brunei, have minimum-wage regulations, but in many of them the minimum is set according to sector and region. The strictness of enforcement also varies.
Jeyakumar proposed that Asean work out a treaty on minimum wages.
“The battle for minimum wage has got to be Asean-wide,” he told FMT. “That’s the only way to ensure that local employers don’t lose out if they hire locals and legitimate foreign workers.”
He claimed that there were currently four million undocumented foreigners in the country, many of whom were being employed illegally by companies looking to keep their costs low.
“What are you going to do about these illegal workers? If you clamp down on them, they’re just going to run off for a while. When the coast is clear, they’ll start working again. You’ve got to make efforts to legalise them.”
He said efforts to legalise these workers must be carried out directly by the government and not outsourced to “crony companies”.
“When the government outsources anything to crony companies, they start doing shady things, charge a lot of money and in the end don’t deliver,” he alleged.
He lamented that there was no “real political will” to handle the problem of illegal foreign workers. “I’m very sorry to say that some members of the Home Ministry are more interested in taking care of the interests of their cronies’ companies than in solving the problem.”
Yesterday, Michael Kang, the President of the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) Association, said the move to freeze assets of businesses employing illegal workers could cause many to close shop, resulting in a dampening of the economy.
He was responding to a warning by the Immigration Department that it would start an operation next month to freeze the assets of employers in the industrial sector who hire or harbour illegal foreign workers.
Klang MP Charles Santiago told FMT that he believed the move was necessary because “the number of undocumented workers runs into millions and their employment has a tendency to dampen wages in the country.”
“There have also been numerous complaints that these employers do not pay wages and violate the rights of workers,” he said.
“Does Michael Kang have an alternative? Would his association be able to discipline the industry as is done in other countries such as South Korea?”
He supported Jeyakumar’s idea of getting Asean involved in increasing minimum wages.
“However,” he said, “we can’t wait for an Asean standard to resolve the serious problem we face. Phasing out the use of undocumented workers within a given time period could be a start.”
Malaysia Employers Federation Executive Director Shamsuddin Bardan agreed that gradually getting rid of undocumented workers was a good solution.
“You need to send them back to where they came from, but to do it abruptly would cause more harm than good to the economy,” he said. “Stretch it to at least a year from now and set a clear deadline.”
On the legalisation of undocumented workers, Shamsuddin said the government’s previous initiatives did not succeed as well as they should have. He pointed out that only 150,000 illegal workers came forward to be registered in June.
He speculated that this was due to employers’ reluctance to admit that they had hired illegal foreign workers.
“Once employers hand in their illegal foreign workers, it’s as if they’re admitting that they’ve been hiring them in the first place. No employer who hires illegals wants to do that.
“Instead, the government should allow these illegal foreign workers to come in on their own initiative and make their registration free of charge. You’ll then have proper data and you can deal with the problem properly.”