MALAYSIA'S openness towards foreign workers is again being challenged. Its people are being denigrated for being abusive employers, as if this is the rule.
Perhaps the time has come for those unfairly maligned to speak up or forever hold their peace and get on with doing the work for themselves and not rely on imported labour. Given that the government has to bear with so much undeserved flak -- and this trivial though humanitarian matter is causing friction with Indonesia and Cambodia -- why not just reduce the number entering the country as workers until such time as a properly regulated free movement of labour can be agreed to in Asean? After all, ending our increasingly costly dependence on migrant workers has been part of government policy for some time.
Hiring foreigners is indeed becoming uneconomical. As the Malaysian Employers Federation has clearly stated, the laws to protect workers, be they local or foreign, are already in place, making the latter less competitive. Given the implementation of the minimum wage policy which extends to foreign employees, the difference to employers will approach zero. Furthermore, the repatriation of income to countries of origin constitutes an unnecessary leakage from our economy. As has frequently been repeated, an acute dependence on foreign workers has hidden costs, such as in the displacement of locals. More insiduously, access to low-paid foreigners holds back the economy from moving up the value chain and keeps it stuck in low-wage production. Malaysian firms are thus obliged to manage things so that any reliance on imported workers is pared down to a minimum. So far, however, few have done so. The foreign worker seems to have become an indispensable part of both society and the economy. Every attempt to get employers off foreign labour has been greeted with groans of addiction withdrawal and pitiful appeals for help.
For as long as their pockets are not hit, most employers will prefer the easy way out. A new mindset must be nurtured, one that shames the cheap skate into greater innovation and self-reliance. There is a need for a transformation of the Malaysian economic mentality from the current insipid consumerism to the responsible citizen ever mindful of the hurt actions can do to the nation. It is this lethargy that makes the country such an easy target in capitals like Jakarta, rightly or wrongly. Indeed, we must be vigilant about the welfare of those we employ, in which case many Malaysians would not be able to afford maids or the many other workers we claim we cannot do without.