Right time to curb entry of foreign workers

I refer to the report proposing a living wage of RM2,700 to draw Malaysians to dirty, dangerous and difficult (3D) jobs. In many ways, I agree with the views expressed. Malaysia has been procrastinating and wavering on foreign workers, fair wages and working conditions for a long time.

Why has economic development become quite meaningless today? Despite the annual GDP growth, the real wages of most people, especially those in the B40 and even M20 categories, have remained stagnant.

In fact, the standard of living and quality of life have largely remained the same. In some areas, such as healthcare and housing, they have become even more unaffordable. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation will become even more acute.

As I see it, the cause of all this is the unfettered entry of foreign unskilled workers into our country. Foreign workers have affected different people differently in this country. They have created acute disparity among Malaysians and stifled productivity-driven growth.

The problem is we have been talking about this for a long time but with no coherent strategy in sight or the political will to change.

The unrestricted entry and use of foreign labour have become the “money-making machine” for some. How the rest of the society is adversely affected becomes secondary.

The salary and perks of Malaysian CEOs and top executives have reached stratosphere comparable with those working in London, New York, Singapore and Shanghai. But look at the wages of the lower rung in our society. Their salaries have gradually gravitated towards the level of the poorest countries in the region.

The reason is easy to discern. Foreign workers only compete with the B40 group. We keep complaining about Malaysians being lazy and unwilling to work like foreign workers but the reality is Malaysians can’t live in workers’ quarters or survive with wages that are paid to foreign workers.

We fail to recognise that foreign workers largely affect the poor and unskilled Malaysians, pushing their living conditions even further to the bottom.

Unskilled and low wage foreign workers also stifle the “production function” of this country, making our economy similar to those poor countries where these workers came from. Have we not seen many of our industries remaining labour-intensive, unproductive and dangerous?

With the availability of cheap labour, there is no incentive to mechanise or change our production processes. Moving Malaysia up the value chain or out of the middle-income trap would be a pipedream because B40 and even M20 Malaysians are getting nowhere.

With the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping across the globe, I think it is never more opportune for Malaysia to regulate and control the entry of foreign workers starting from now.

TK Chua is an FMT reader.

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

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