KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 31 — Labour shortage continues to be a drag on the economy, say industry players.
One of the reasons for this is strict criteria on the hiring of foreign workers.
While he is grateful to the government for the initiatives that helped his business stay afloat, Syed Bistro director Datuk Syed Jamarul Khan said there are issues that still need to be addressed.
“Businesses like ours have to depend on foreign workers because locals are not interested in working for us.
“But we can’t hire as fast due to strict criteria and, so, some businesses are struggling with operation hours,” he told the Malay Mail.
Cutting down operation hours
Syed Jamarul said the government should look into relaxing bureaucracy involved in the hiring of foreign workers.
“The process takes about three months inclusive of application, and sometimes after going through all that you might not even get what you applied for.
“Because of the long waiting time and hassle, many decided to just work with what they have and opt for shortened operation hours,” he said.
He added that until today, Syed Bistro cannot extend its operation hours beyond 12 midnight due to shortage of staff.
“We lost a lot of staff when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country. Many left to go back to their home country as they wanted to be with their families.
“Of course, once they left, it was impossible to bring them back into the country with all the travel restrictions.
“Now travel restrictions have been lifted but the process to rehire foreign workers remains troublesome,” he said.
To date, Syed Bistro is still short of about 100 staff, said Syed Jamarul.
“I need about 300 but I have been operating with just slightly over 100 staff,” he said, indicating that he had to let go of some staff due to Covid-19.
At the same time, he said he still paid salaries to the remaining staff in order to retain them even though there was no work when restaurants were shut for no dine-in.
Reduce agent fees
Malaysia-Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors General Association president Wong Teu Hoon said the majority of coffee shops have now resorted to shorter operating hours.
“We used to open from 7am to 5pm, now we have to shut by 2pm, simply because of labour shortage,” he said.
According to Wong, although almost 70 per cent of the coffee shop sector has returned to business, they still cannot go back to normal operation hours.
“For smaller operators like me, we can’t afford to pay so much to hire foreign workers but at the same time we need workers.
“We really hope that the government can look into reducing the agent fees and requirements to hire.
“Right now, we do hire part-time staff to help around but for small business owners like me, I still have to do most of the work,” said Wong.
Coffee shops like this one cannot operate longer hours because of a shortage of workers. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Continuous brain drain
Datuk William Ng, chairman of Small and Medium Enterprises Association Malaysia (SAMENTA), said although the implementation of the Geran Prihatin Khas, along with the Wage Subsidy Programme, were useful to SMEs, growth has been slower for SMEs compared to the rest of the economy.
Ng said part of this is due to the continued political and economic uncertainty, a rapid increase in costs and the continued shortage of workers.
“We are seeing an improvement since September as more workers return to the job market but the skill gap remains high, if not higher than before the pandemic.
“For example, in Penang alone, we are short of 40,000 engineers and technicians to support the boom in the electrical and electronic industry.
“We are losing our trained workers to neighbouring economies such as Singapore and have to retrain fresh graduates to be industry- and job-ready,” he said.
While paying more for workers and allowing a temporary increase in foreign workers quota would help relieve the problem, Ng said there is still a need to address the underlying challenge of skill gap and a changed labour market.
“We are hopeful that the next government will consider our proposal for the establishment of more industry-led academies to close the skill gap, while encouraging more Malaysians to choose vocational training and education.”
On October 15, National Recovery Council (NRC) chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin acknowledged that labour shortage remains a critical problem in Malaysia, with the number of foreign workers entering the country far lower than what is necessary for certain industries to be productive.
He had then urged the government to speed up the process of hiring foreign workers according to the needs of specific industries.
Over in the retail sector, Mydin Mohamed Holdings Bhd managing director Datuk Ameer Ali Mydin said although business has improved, it has not returned to what it was in 2019.
One of the hindrances is the hiring of foreign workers. “The approvals are happening but it’s not fast enough and thus, affects business operations.
“I’ve always suggested that if it’s a legitimate business, just approve their applications, otherwise they can’t run their businesses.
“Some of these businesses are not new and they have applied for foreign workers before. Businesses like these — the government should give automatic or immediate approval. Don’t make them go through the entire process again.
“New businesses... perhaps, you do the interview and background checks,” he said.
Even with the interviews, Ameer said the government needs to speed up or increase frequency of interviews as only a limited number of interviews are conducted per week.
Previously, Datuk Michael Kang, a member of the NRC, said the government should at least automatically approve 50 per cent of those who applied.
He also suggested a sort of “green lane” system be implemented to speed up the process for SMEs to acquire foreign labour and other requirements such as approvals to import raw materials.