KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 21 — The government’s announcement that it will ease up on rules for hiring foreign workers has inspired a new hope that business will improve, said Zobir Osman, managing director of construction company Juru Wajar Sdn Bhd.
“It’s been a struggle to get foreign workers since after the movement control order (MCO)... at this site, I have seven workers but if I could, I would rather have 11 or 12,” he said, when met at a construction site in Kuala Lumpur.
Zobir said that the lack of foreign labour and the rising price of raw materials played equal parts in creating a business environment full of desperate contractors willing to underquote to get projects, which left those unwilling to take such risks out of stable work.
“Many of these government contracts pay contractors a lump sum before work begins, and the desperate companies want this so they can service their bank loans... but if they do this too often, they may cause their business to die later,” he said.
With Malaysia preparing to face a global recession this year, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim announced on January 10 that “unprecedented” steps would be taken to meet the country’s economic development needs.
Zobir Osman, Zobir Osman, managing director of construction company Juru Wajar Sdn Bhd, speaks to Malay Mail during an interview January 13, 2023. — Picture by Choo Choy May
He said this includes the removal of a quota that previously required Malaysian employers to hire at least three local workers before being eligible to hire one foreigner.
Furthermore, it was decided that the Illegal Immigrant Recalibration Plan 2.0 (IIRP) programme would be reintroduced.
The plan provides an official working permit to undocumented migrants after they pay a compound, with Malaysia earning over RM700 million in earnings this way last year.
Between November 2020 and the end of June 2022, 418,528 individuals registered for the recalibration programme.
“These initiatives by Datuk Seri Anwar will be solving a big part of the problem for all industry players, whether Malay contractors, Chinese contractors, everyone,” said Malaysian Malay Contractors Association (PKMM) president Datuk Seri Mohamed Fadzill Hassan when contacted by Malay Mail.
Similarly, the Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association’s (Presma) president Datuk Jawahar Ali Taib Khan said his members were “very happy” with the prime minister’s decision.
Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) president Tan Sri Datuk Soh Thian Lai on February 11 issued a statement thanking the government for “recognising the importance and complementary role that foreign workers play in supporting economic recovery.”
However, employers said that they would also like several long-standing requests to be fulfilled.
Mohamed Fadzill said that the ineligibility of refugees that are United Nations High Commission For Refugees (UNHCR) cardholders to work in Malaysia was a situation that should be changed.
“They are here with their families. They too need food to eat, so it’s better to let them work instead of them causing social issues. It will also be a win-win for Malaysian companies that are struggling to find workers,” he said.
Meanwhile, Jawahar Ali said that there needs to be protection for employers when foreign employees want to return home or run away.
“If the foreign employee is determined to return to his home country, he needs to make a confession in front of a high-ranking immigration official and after his departure is recorded then an automatic replacement of an employee should be given to the employer.
“Also, there should be an automatic replacement for foreign employees who run away, after the employer reports the matter to the police and pays a RM750 fine,” he suggested.
Plantation workers are seen loading palm oil fruit bunches onto a truck in Kampung Gajah July 2, 2022. — Picture by Farhan Najib
Malaysia also recently had its relationship with neighbouring countries tested because of how it treats foreign workers.
In July 2022, Indonesia temporarily stopped sending its citizens to work in Malaysia. This included thousands recruited for the plantation sector, citing a breach in an agreement that aimed at improving the protection of domestic workers employed in Malaysian households.
However, this was sorted out about a month later, in August 2022.
Arulkumar Singaraveloo, the co-founder of Malaysia HR Forum, said that Malaysia needs to be careful to avoid a similar situation and make sure that even as employment rules are relaxed, the needs of migrant workers are taken care of — especially appropriate accommodation.
“There should be at least a minimum criteria that companies who are applying to get foreign workers must first prove that they have accommodation for their existing workers that is approved by the labour department.
“Giving employers a blank cheque to hire by bypassing the quota requirement may be counterproductive to the efforts undertaken to eliminate forced labour practices,” said the former human resources general manager of a major Malaysian glove maker.