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Labour Day reflections: Why foreign workers are not the enemy

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The organisers of today’s May Day Rally in KL asked Jeyakumar Devaraj to participate in a press conference at the end of the programme. This is what he had to say.

Happy Labour Day!

Let me put today’s event in perspective.

Forty-six years ago, in 1970, Malaysia’s GDP was RM10.5bn. Today it is RM1,250bn. Okay, there has been inflation of about 400 per cent between 1970 and now. So RM10.5bn would be RM42bn in today’s ringgit. So in real terms our GDP is now 30 times bigger than it was in 1970!

Okay, we also have to factor in population growth. We were about 10m in 1970. We are now 30m. So, per capita GDP has increased 10-fold over the past 46 years.

But are we living 10 times better? Are we 10 times more comfortable? Certainly not! Our college students are burdened with huge loans that take years to pay. Our young people can’t afford to buy houses of their own. Their income just isn’t enough! Many ordinary families are struggling to make ends meet despite working overtime.

Why is this happening? We are a rich country. Our per capita GDP has grown 10-fold; yet, we are suffering! The problem is that a lot of the wealth in this country has been grabbed by the top 10 per cent. That is why the rest of us are struggling.

To challenge the top 10 per cent and claim a fair share of the wealth of this nation, the ordinary people have to get together. This is why the PSM organises events like this May Day rally – to bring people together to talk about our issues and demand a better distribution of our wealth.

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It is important that we do not remain divided by race or religion but work together to create a more fair society. We should be concerned about the welfare of all Malaysians whatever race they belong to. It is only when an Indian activist speaks up for poor Malays, and Malay progressives champion the cause of the Orang Asli, and so on can we build the people’s movement that can challenge the greed of the top 10 per cent.

We have in our midst 5.5m foreign workers. And it is true that their presence poses problems for our working people: because foreign workers can be bullied into accepting lower wages or long working hours without overtime, Malaysian workers from the B40 (bottom 40 per cent) have difficulty finding jobs or getting decent pay when they do get employment. The bosses much prefer to employ the foreign workers.

But let’s be clear here: the foreign workers are not our enemy, and the way out is for us to empower them. If they are not so easily bullied, then they would not represent such a big savings to the bosses. And our B40 would have better access to jobs. Empowering migrant workers is good for our B40.

Unfortunately, many Malaysians do not understand this. Whenever the PSM speaks up for foreign workers, there are netizens who are quick to chide us saying that we should be concerned about local workers. They do not understand that protecting foreign workers from exploitation is actually beneficial to our workers.

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If we wish to redistribute the wealth of this country more equitably, we must understand who the real enemy is. It is not the foreign worker. It is that portion of our elite who make hundreds of millions in commissions and fees from the business of importing foreign labour. Its only when we understand this reality can we address income inequality in Malaysia in a meaningful way.

Workers of the world unite! Happy Labour Day!

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