Jomo tells why unions must speak up for foreign workers

Economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram says the often-cited excuse that Malaysians are unwilling to take up dirty, dangerous and difficult (3D) jobs is a myth perpetuated by employers.

KUALA LUMPUR: A prominent economist has called on labour unions to speak up for the rights of foreign workers, saying labour leaders must look beyond their respective unions and nationality.

Speaking at the Malaysian Trades Union Congress’ 70th anniversary, Jomo Kwame Sundaram said all workers would be considered to be worse off even if only some are treated badly.

He cited the example of a Nepali security guard he had spoken to who worked 12-hour shifts daily, at times working double shifts.

“That was 84 hours a week. The average working time for most Malaysians is 40 hours a week.”

Any employer, he said, would like to have an employee who worked twice as long for less and it would then be difficult for locals to compete for jobs with the foreigners.

According to reports, there are an estimated six million migrant workers in the country, with only 2.1 million working here legally.

The foreign workers, especially the undocumented ones, Jomo said, were exposed to poor working conditions.

“This country cannot prosper by stepping on foreign workers. The idea of solidarity (for workers) must not be determined by citizenship.

“This is being discovered all over the world. If you take advantage of foreign workers, it will affect our own people as well,” he said.

Employers, he said, would often cite the need to hire foreign workers for dirty, dangerous and difficult (3D) jobs as Malaysians were not willing to do them.

But Jomo said this was not true, citing a study carried out by Khazanah Research Institute titled “The School-to-Work Transition of Young Malaysians”.

He said that study found that young Malaysians were prepared to work even in less desirable conditions due to a lack of choice and their desire to work and be independent.

“This is a myth which employers are involved in perpetuating. We have to reject such myths.”

He said to do this, it was important to share information on the conditions under which workers were working and living in.