PETALING JAYA: Love them or hate them, without foreign workers to man the tills and the threshers, Malaysia’s economy would grind to a halt.
Pressed by employers fretting about business continuity in the post-Covid-19 era, Malaysia imported 400,000 migrant workers in 2023 alone to plug shortages in the five critical economic sectors of construction, manufacturing, plantation, agriculture, and services industries.
On top of legal workers, Malaysia hosts an estimated pool of irregular or undocumented migrants that fluctuates between 1.2 million and 3.5 million, alarming the local population of 30.4 million (as of 1Q2023) and fuelling perceived threats to public order, personal safety and national security.
Strict controls and transparency are critical to managing the influx of migrant workers while providing assurance to the public. Stringent controls and enforcement are also essential to scrub Malaysia’s tainted human rights record, which needs to comply with global standards to ensure export acceptance and overall business continuity.
Since 2015, Malaysia has implemented the digital Foreign Workers Centralised Management System (FWCMS) to centralise, systemise and expedite foreign worker recruitment and curb abuses. The 400,00 migrant workers were brought in systematically via the FWCMS.
Controversies surrounding foreign worker recruitment
As foreign worker recruitment is opaque and oft-misunderstood in Malaysia, FWCMS has frequently been a political hot potato provoking controversy. One, FWCMS, in particular, Bestinet, is accused of being a monopoly that crowds out healthy competition in the foreign worker recruitment space.
The reality is that FWCMS is the first mover, developed without state funding in 2013 in response to the government’s challenge to establish a practical one-stop centre for foreign worker recruitment.
Two, there have been allegations that FWCMS functions surreptitiously as a broker and middleman, raised by activist former Klang MP Charles Santiago. However, checks by FMT have shown that FWCMS is not an intermediary.
Rather, FWCMS is an enabler, functioning as a pure solutions platform that facilitates the application, verification and registration of foreign workers.
Key features of FWCMS include identity verification to prevent fraud and verification of medical checks in the origin countries of the migrant workers to ensure that these comply with Malaysia’s health standards.
Three, FWCMS is not empowered to set and enforce laws and regulations related to foreign worker recruitment. This mandate comes under the auspices of the human resources ministry as well as other relevant ministries and regulatory agencies that police the foreign worker recruitment sector.
Driving good governance and trust
What FWCMS does is expedite foreign worker recruitment processes and make them more transparent in the interests of employers and the public.
FWCMS has also had positive implications for Malaysia’s ESG (environmental, social and governance) aspirations, as the poor perception of the country’s compliance with global labour laws and labour welfare standards has drawn the scrutiny of global regulators in developed jurisdictions, which could be detrimental for Malaysian exports.
According to stakeholders such as the National Association of Private Employment Agencies Malaysia (PAPSMA), which acts as a bridge between recruits, employers and related stakeholders, particularly government authorities, the use of FWCMS has elevated good governance and transparency and improved protection for vulnerable migrant workers.
More importantly, FWCMS controls offer assurance to the public that their safety and security are not at risk due to illicit recruitment practices.
FWCMS’s integration with border controls also facilitates regulatory enforcement in the interests of the public and migrant workers by preventing fraud and identity theft.
FWCMS records workers’ fingerprints, faces, and passports, connecting in real-time to Malaysia’s immigration department for security checks. If someone is blacklisted, the system prevents them from undergoing medical checks.
“This system can remove many middlemen, like those without a licence. It also addresses problems such as human trafficking and mistreatment of migrant workers. With this in place, we often see fewer scenarios where foreign workers end up stranded,” said PAPSMA president Kris Foo Yin Choo.
Expediting recruitment processes
FWCMS has also significantly shortened recruitment processes from several months to just weeks, benefiting employers.
“Before this, employers had a hard time waiting in lines or making many phone calls. But with FWCMS, they can do everything online,” said Foo. “They can look at qualifications, visas, send information, and even tell when workers arrive using the system.”
While FWCMS has worked well so far by expediting the recruitment process and mitigating recruitment risks, the system still falls short of being an end-to-end process that resolves all the gripes raised by employers.
“The only setback is that FWCMS does not deal with renewals or keep track of when someone leaves the system,” said an industry source who requested anonymity.
For instance, after a year when the contract ends, you can’t renew using FWCMS; you need to use e-PLKS (Pas Lawatan Kerja Sementara or temporary working visit pass) instead.”
The next step in the evolution of Malaysia’s foreign recruitment sector could very well be the development and implementation of a more integrated end-to-end solution.
“The industry wants a complete process that covers everything, from applying to the worker coming back or renewing the contract,” added the source.