No end to argument on foreign workers

This is in reference to the news report, “Why Malaysians would do 3D jobs overseas but not at home”. There are a few observations made by the Minister of Human Resources and others.

For example, the minister said wages for dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs are far too low at present when compared with those offered in other countries.

Accordingly, Malaysians working abroad would return only if they are offered higher wages here. Some others blamed low productivity for the low wages, especially in unskilled sectors.

All these observations are pertinent but they have not addressed the fundamental issues. Who in this country today does not know that workers in unskilled sectors are paid very little for whatever reasons we may choose to attribute it to?

Who does not know that the “production function” in 3D sectors has hardly changed due to lack of automation, mechanisation and other productivity improvement measures in the last few decades?

Malaysian workers in 3D sectors must lower their standard of living to that of foreign workers, failing which no employer would want to employ them.

Has it ever occurred to us that only unskilled Malaysians in this country face unfettered competition from foreign workers? They must endure poor working conditions and earn like foreign workers.

However, skilled and knowledge-based Malaysians don’t face any competition, at least not now.

Hence, the next time we label Malaysian unskilled workers as lazy, uncompetitive and expensive, best to think again.

We have failed to recognise that the system is inherently unfair to them. We have allowed the unfettered entry of foreign manual workers into our country, then blamed our Malaysian counterparts for being allegedly expensive and unproductive.

But teachers, immigration officers, policemen, executives in banks, GLCs and corporations are all “productive” and “not expensive” even though they face no competition from foreigners. Perhaps, we should get more Indian and Chinese nationals to join our civil service, work in the IT sector or in our banks and corporations to see who really is unproductive and expensive.

Minister Kulasegaran talked about low wages as the reason why so many Malaysian manual workers have migrated overseas. This is a right observation to make but a wrong inference to draw.

The wages for unskilled workers in this country will never go up so long as we allow the unlimited entry of foreign workers. Foreign workers have not only suppressed wages but also stifled improvements to productivity.

Which employer would bother about automation, mechanisation and other productivity enhancement measures when they have unlimited foreign labourers to exploit?

Why would they even bother to look at working conditions and safety issues when these foreign workers are cheap, readily available and indentured?

Employers, economists, politicians and even trade unionists will give us one thousand and one reasons why we need foreign workers. Foreign workers are no longer coming here to supplement our workforce. They are now part of our economy, dictating our production function i.e. our productivity.

Best not to harbour the delusion that Malaysians working overseas will return if only wages are allowed to go up.

Wages, especially for 3D jobs, will not go up so long as existing policies on foreign workers are not changed. Malaysians will not take up 3D jobs even if they are unemployed because to do so would only impoverish them further.

If we want our people gainfully employed, especially those who are not very skilled or educated, we must gradually regulate and control the entry of foreign workers.

But no one is interested in hearing about this anymore. The “trade” in foreign workers is just too lucrative for some.

The old government was too stubborn and had “vested interests” to understand the issue of foreign labour. They allowed the whole country to be inundated with foreign workers without caring much for the consequences.

Unfortunately, the new government doesn’t understand either. Their initial promises and the resulting euphoria has since dissipated. Foreigners will continue to come here and certain categories of Malaysians will continue to migrate overseas. It is useless to keep talking when we have done nothing to change the equation.

TK Chua is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.