The debate around the Malaysian workforce situation has become somewhat convoluted. The government says that employing foreign workers will ease the desperation felt by sectors needing people willing to do dirty, dangerous and difficult – or 3D – jobs. Those who oppose this plan either say the government is taking away jobs from Malaysians or express a worry that the influx of more foreigners would result in more social problems. The government says it has no choice because Malaysians aren’t willing to take up 3D jobs.
The uproar was sparked by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s announcement of the government’s plan to bring in 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers over the next three years. Some Malaysians were furious, saying there were already enough foreign workers in the country and were criticising the government for being unfair to young job-seeking Malaysians. Zahid, drawing on his famous fighting spirit, told his critics “to stop blaming the government” because the demand for foreign workers came from industry.
Zahid, somewhat unkindly, also rebuked Malaysians for looking down on 3D jobs. He said the only people absolutely willing to do these jobs were foreign workers. In this, he was joined by Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin. But then, Malaysian job seekers, at least the university graduates among them, seem to agree with Zahid. Many have said they aren’t about to waste their learning by cleaning toilets.
In examining the matter, we cannot ignore the issue of what the government stands to gain by bringing in foreign labour. Is it only to fill the gaps in the workforce? Or is it, as some have suggested, to help our government fill its coffers?
Klang MP Charles Santiago has questioned one of Zahid’s statements, saying that the argument for more foreign workers appeared to be a matter of making money for brokers rather than meeting labour needs. Hindraf Makkal Sakthi Chairman P Waythamoorthy expanded upon this argument, saying that the government’s interest in foreign labour was to rake in revenue from worker levies and to allow local manpower agencies, all politically connected, to collect hefty fees from the unfortunate foreigners.
The plan does make financial sense for the Federal Government. Take the recent announcement of the government’s restructuring of the levy rate system for foreign workers. The levy was raised from RM1,250 to RM2,500. Then consider the heavy dependence of government-linked plantations on foreign labour. Indeed, a lot of money is set to flow into the government coffers – as well as the coffers of well-connected companies – if the plan to bring in 1.5 million Bangladeshis goes through.
So is it just a matter of solving a workforce problem? Or does it have more to do with financial gain?
The issue over whether or not Malaysians are lazy becomes less significant when we consider what the government and its cronies stand to gain.
Should Malaysians start emboldening themselves to work in dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs? Of course, but only if the government can ensure that they can make a decent living. When that happens, the stigma around 3D jobs will begin to disappear.
But right now, the administration needs to come clean on why it’s so eager to import another 1.5 million foreign workers.