Why MEF is suddenly worried about future of foreign workers

We refer to the article “Rethink foreign worker policies now, govt told as massive job losses loom” (FMT, April 24). Allow us to respond to some of the issues raised as we think they are pertinent especially under the prevailing Covid-19 circumstances and the expected impact.

Firstly, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) is surprised that the Malaysian Employers’ Federation (MEF) is now pleading with the government to take measures that would reduce the country’s over-dependency on foreign labour.

For years, employers, many of them members of MEF and the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM), blatantly used middlemen and agents to recruit foreign workers, legal and illegal, for cheap labour to reap huge profits. It was also a tactic used for many years to suppress the wages of local workers.

These tactics worked perfectly well as the corridors of power were often complicit in enacting policies that enabled millions of unskilled foreigners to find their way to work in Malaysia.

These legal and illegal workers were forced to live off cheap salaries and squalid accommodation as they were exploited by many employers, including public-listed companies and MEF’s members.

Consequently, these companies never saw the need to recruit local workers or offer Malaysians training in skills which offered higher salaries.

This is the core reason why most of the Malaysian workforce has remained in the B40 group and live in abject poverty despite working for years.

Therefore, at a time when the economy is speedily buckling under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic, MTUC is apprehensive over the real motives of the MEF with regard to foreign workers.

What has forced MEF into terminating its “love affair” with middlemen and recruitment agents for foreign workers? We are forced to ask if narrow interests are once again at play.

Could this be a ploy for employers to turn their backs on the foreign workers already in Malaysia but now rendered redundant due to the economic lockdown?

That would clearly be a travesty of justice to these workers who have contributed so much to Malaysia’s development for so many years.

Many of them have valid, legal employment contracts, either with their agents or with the employers themselves. They should be given the same protection as locals under Malaysian laws.

Moral responsibility

As such, the MEF has a moral responsibility in ensuring these workers are not victimised by their members. MTUC does not wish to see Malaysia being continuously targeted by the international community for ill-treatment of migrant workers.

However, looking into the future needs of the country, MTUC agrees that the government needs to relook policies for hiring foreign workers as it may not be business as usual any more.

The system of allowing agents to bring in foreign workers without strict control will exacerbate the current situation, which is already worrying with employers wilfully laying off workers, despite the government asking them not to do so for now.

In this context, we urge the government to officially suspend all intake of foreign workers immediately, including those which were approved before the movement control order (MCO) came into place.

These approvals are likely to be not relevant any more in view of the loss of jobs that will be caused by the impact of Covid-19.

As for those stranded here, we urge the employers and the government not to ignore them during this difficult moment as it will smack of utter ingratitude to a community which has helped the nation when we needed them most but wanting to chuck them out at the first instance of trouble. We are being extremely inhumane, to say the least.

Employers seem to have forgotten the contribution and sacrifices of the foreign workers in building important infrastructure and those who work in the service sector of this country. At least remember that they were the ones who put up the bricks for the Petronas Twin Towers.

For those workers who have served out their contracts and need to be sent back, the authorities and employers must do it in a very dignified manner. The attitude and conduct of many employers towards migrant labour is below par and only shows how they will also treat the local workers when it comes to the crunch.

This whole episode of Covid-19 has inadvertently exposed the true colours of employers towards workers.

They only want you when they need to rake in the profits. When a catastrophe strikes, you are the first ones they want out. If the workers do not realise this by now, it is only their fault for allowing employers to continue exploiting them.

The MEF says that the government needs to come up with policies that will attract Malaysians to these jobs.

Yes, we agree but the core of this issue is that the employers are paying them very low wages.

With a minimum wage of RM1,200, everyone knows that no local will work as this amount is insufficient in suburban or urban areas for households.

So the government needs the commitment and cooperation of employers here. The government must stop mollycoddling employers who in turn must stop exploiting workers.

It is the system of empowering agents, who were set up by political parties, that corrupted the whole process of bringing in foreign workers.

Knowing that this business was indeed huge and lucrative, the ruling political parties took advantage and were awarded the contracts. They started treating foreign workers as mere commodities. If this whole system is cleaned up, there will be some form of control.

The MEF says machines can replace two to three foreign workers which then will require only one worker to operate the machine. If this is the case, are employers willing to pay that one Malaysian the total salary of three foreign workers?

If they are willing to do this, there will definitely be local workers who will be queuing up for these jobs.

What we see now is tens of thousands of employees in factories, some of which are owned by foreigners. We bring in foreigners to invest. They then reap huge profits and send them back to their countries.

At the same time, they employ foreign workers because they are allowed to pay them low wages. And these workers also need to send money to their families back home since it is a necessity.

Foreign investors come in and use our natural resources and the key geographical locations to reap huge profits using cheap migrant labour.

But when they are faced with the Covid-19 situation, they do not use the huge profits they reaped over the decades to help these poor workers.

Simply because these employers want to continue living in luxury with the money they made from the blood, sweat and tears of the workers.

The employers are the ones who needed them most. And they are the ones who manipulated the government to bring them in droves to run their operations. And today they want to abandon them, which is tantamount to running away from their responsibilities.

When drawing up any new policies on the recruitment of foreign workers, the MTUC strongly urges the government not to disregard the reality on the ground, particularly on the labour needs of small businesses.

Retailers and service providers like sundry shops, barbershops or food stall operators must be given priority to recruit foreign workers because all of them are locals. This will ensure their operations are cost-effective and run efficiently.

Unlike big companies, they do have the capacity to offer high salaries or perks to attract locals.

The crux of the whole issue of migrant workers is the low wages paid by these capitalist employers who only think of unjust enrichment.

Is the government willing to raise the minimum wages to a sensible and liveable amount to attract the local workers to take up these jobs? If they do, we can see locals taking up these jobs.

J Solomon is MTUC secretary-general.

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


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