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Foreign workers ban: What’s the real story?

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If the government is serious about attracting Malaysian workers, it must admit that the current minimum wage is not a living wage, says Rani Rasiah.

The cabinet decision to stop the intake of new migrant workers and instead rehire undocumented workers already in the country is a welcome move.

This is exactly what the different stakeholders have been pushing for since the government announced its plan to bring in 1.5m Bangladeshi workers into the country.

The earlier decision to hire more migrant workers and the subsequent signing of the MOU were strongly objected to on the basis that there are up to 4m undocumented workers in the country who should be legalised and absorbed.

The government has complained that the rehiring process is currently very slow and has extended the deadline to the end of June. Extending the deadline alone may not be enough; the system of legalising undocumented workers must be reviewed to ensure that the mistakes of the failed 6P are not repeated.

The decision to stop the intake of more migrant workers is a major one, and PSM hopes it is based on well considered grounds and acceptance of the arguments that have been forwarded. Hopefully, it is not merely a reaction to the widespread opposition to it and especially not to ‘teach them’, as remarks such as “get Malaysian workers to fill the 3D vacancies” and “if employers need workers, they should apply to the MEF, the FMM and the MTUC” seem to suggest.

The government must be honest about Malaysians workers and 3D jobs.

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In the first place, it is untrue that the migrant workforce is all in the 3D sectors. Almost 50% of migrant workers are in manufacturing and services.

It is also untrue that Malaysian workers shun 3D jobs. More than 300,000 Malaysians are in 3D jobs in Singapore, and on our own shores, 100% of Indah Water workers are Malaysians, in both cases because of the extra income.

Not having a comprehensive policy on the intake and management of migrant workers and maintaining differentials in wages and other monetary incentives between the migrant and local workforce has resulted in a situation where employers hire migrant workers to not just complement but also replace Malaysian workers. The denial of the right of redress worsens the situation as it makes migrant workers easier to bully.

If the government is serious about attracting Malaysian workers, it must admit that the current minimum wage is not a living wage and, given the cost of living, will only enable a family to live in hardship. So the government must raise wages to a more realistic level, or complement low wages with a social wage, such as subsidised housing.

The ban will not last without these changes.

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