Migrant workers are part of Malaysia’s history, yet they are often sidelined and maligned by politicians and citizens alike.

R.AGE explores the unseen stories of these workers, and how they have helped build the Malaysia we know today.

Migration works

In the weeks leading up to the 14th General Elections, a voice recording went viral on social media.

“To all migrant workers, stay home on the 9th of May. If we see you in the streets, we won’t ask questions, we will bash you up,” it said.

Such is life for migrant workers in Malaysia. Hard work, low pay, and discrimination that borders on hate.

There is little else for them to do but to submit. “I felt really afraid when I heard that voice message,” said Navid (not his real name), a migrant store clerk who works in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. “That day me and the rest just stayed in our home and slept the whole day.”

It’s not the first time migrant workers have been used to stir up the voters. In the previous elections, opposition politicians raised the spectre of Bangladeshi phantom voters - causing much anger with precious little credible evidence.

Of course, the opposition then is the government today, and the anti-migrant worker rhetoric continues.

Right after the elections, the Human Resource ministry put out a call to ban foreign cooks. Just weeks after that, the Immigration Department launched a nationwide clampdown on undocumented migrant workers that many civil society organisations called inhumane.

The migrant bogeyman is not original to Malaysia. Donald Trump won the US presidency on the back of an anti-immigration campaign. All across Europe, political actors are gaining political mileage by demonising migrants.

Like Trump, these politicians are connecting with their voter base through the spiel that migrants are “stealing our jobs” and “ruining our economy”.

It’s a spiel that echoes even in the Malaysian political landscape.

A nation built by migrant labour

Malaysia is no stranger when it comes to migrant workers.

In colonial times, the British mass imported foreign labour to industrialise Malaya. This was by no means an altruistic decision. According to academic analysis portal New Mandala, “labour migration became a fundamental component of Malaya’s economic growth model”.

And it worked. During the industrial revolution, Malaya rose to become one of the the biggest exporters of rubber and tin worldwide, industries that were dominated by ethnic Indian and Chinese migrants respectively.

Decades later, with colonial Britain long gone, and the ethnic Indian and Chinese workers now settled as citizens, the Malaysian economy still depends on migrant workers.

It is well-established that Malaysia experienced an economic boom around the 80s. Our GDP spiked from US$ 3 billion in 1970 to 44 billion in 1990. This boom has been attributed -- in part -- to the entrance of migrant workers in large numbers.

A 2018 report by Bank Negara mentions how “these (migrant) workers eased production pressures and were compatible with the low value-added production of Malaysia then.”

Far from ruining our economy, migrant workers have been actively building it, and continue to do so. In a recent simulation ran by the World Bank showed that a 10% increase in the migrant worker population led to 1.1% rise in Malaysia’s GDP.

“Migrants steal our jobs”

Contrary to popular opinion, migrant workers don't take jobs from locals.
The migrant worker population increased sharply in the 80s, only stabilising in the last 10 years.

If they were truly “stealing” jobs, unemployment rates should have skyrocketed. Instead, Malaysia’s unemployment rates have steadily declined over the 80s, and since the 2000s, have been holding steady at around 3%.

This is because, instead of ruining the job market, migrants took up jobs that Malaysians didn’t want, like those classed as “3D” (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs.

This worked to create higher-paying jobs for Malaysians, a phenomena that has been documented by World Bank research: it shows 5.2 new medium-skilled jobs being created for every 10 low-paying jobs that went to migrants.

Worldwide situation

It’s a familiar situation worldwide.

According to International Labour Organisation (ILO) Regional Migration Specialist for Asia and the Pacific, Nilim Baruah, studies have proven time and time again that migration benefits a developing economy.

“Migrants take up low-wage jobs that free up locals to take up high paying jobs and venture into entrepreneurship,” he said.
“All countries prioritise creating local jobs as a start, however there is often a shortage of labour. When this happens, migrant workers fill in the gap.”

ILO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) analysed the situation across 10 low and middle-wage countries to understand how migration contributes to local economies.

Their research found that migrant workers boost a country’s labour market, economic growth and public finances by providing labour where local markets face shortages.

The middle-income trap

However, there are valid concerns surrounding migrant labour.

A recent paper by Bank Negara Malaysia spells out the migrant labour dilemma with developing nations: “Malaysia’s economy has long benefited from a supportive immigration stance… but the ease and availability of these low-skilled workers at a cheap cost create deep distortions that disincentives firms to transform.”

Essentially, a large supply of cheap migrant labour has made it attractive to run low-skilled, labour-intensive businesses.

That’s great for fast-tracking a developing economy.

But in the long run, businesses become over-reliant on cheap labour and not on innovation.

High-skill, knowledge-based industries eventually suffer. This leads to a dearth of high-skilled, high-income jobs - exactly the kind of jobs the increasingly educated local populace would seek.

The minimum wage solution

One solution is to implement a minimum wage policy that covers local and foreign workers equally. With this, foreign labour is no longer drastically cheaper than local labour.

A Bank Negara study on the implementation of a minimum wage in Malaysia concluded that it would promote “higher value-added economic activities and higher-skilled jobs”.

Enforcing labour laws on working hours and rest days also encourages productivity through innovation rather than sheer man hours.

Malaysia has clear regulations on both labour laws and minimum wage, but struggles to enforce them, especially when it comes to undocumented workers. Undocumented workers remain outside state regulation and facilities, so if they are exploited by employers, they cannot seek redress.

Unfortunately, according to the ILO and OECD’s joint study, the majority of migrant workers worldwide are undocumented. Yet, it is often not a choice that the workers make consciously.

“People don’t like to work as undocumented migrants,” said director of migrant rights advocacy group Tenaganita, Aegile Fernandez.

“Most undocumented workers become undocumented because of external factors - like being trafficked, being caught in debt bondage or facing situations of forced labour.”

“At the moment, predatory business practices mean that the exploitation of migrant labour is rampant,” said human rights organisation North South Initiative’s executive director, Adrian Pereira.

“(Migrant) workers can be made to work seven days a week, especially when they are undocumented workers,” he said.

It’s our own fault

However, these issues cannot blamed on migrant workers.

There will always be an influx of migrant workers into any given country - even Malaysians migrate to work overseas.

According to Fernandez, the real issue lies in a lack of a comprehensive framework or policy across all stakeholders, that leads towards the goal of creating the ideal economy.

“We’ve had migrant workers for such a long time, but we haven’t come up with a clear and effective framework” said Fernandez.

“When there are no systems in place to handle anything, the nation inevitably becomes the cause of the problems.”

Making things right

The Human Resources ministry has recently created the Special Committee on Foreign Workers, an inter-ministry taskforce that will look into issues regarding migrant workers.

The aim is to produce a comprehensive report that outlines strategies on migrant labour moving forward.

The committee has so far conducted 13 townhall sessions all over the country, participated by key stakeholders. In a written response, the Ministry says it has received 797 oral responses over the course of these townhall sessions related to the weaknesses in the management of foreign workers.

This move has been widely lauded by civil society organisations, although some still express concern that the interests of businesses and employers often override those of migrant workers.

“It was very concerning to see labour-industry operators and businesses at the townhall sessions trying to maintain conditions that allow them to exploit migrant workers,” said Pereira, who attended the townhall session.

“Many employers were pushing for unregulated overtime and shift hours akin to forced labour conditions”

In a written response, the Ministry says that the committee will be finalising and submitting an interim report to the Ministry today (Dec 18th). A final report is scheduled to be submitted on Feb 15th, 2019, to a joint committee comprising the representatives from the ministries of Human Resources and Home Affairs, who will forward the report to the Cabinet.

The people who build our nation

It is inevitable that the economics of migrant labour will shape policies. But focusing on the crude numbers alone would be, well, crude. The human dignity of these workers must surely be taken into account too. After all, migrant workers are human, with human stories, just like you and I.

Take security guard Somraj Tamang, who came to Malaysia from Nepal five years ago. We met up with him early in the morning, after he had completed a 12-hour shift. Bubbling over in excitement, and still dressed in his uniform, he looked like an overgrown high school kid.

Back home, Somraj’s wife takes care of the family’s farm and tea shop. But earnings were not stable, so he had to leave to find a more consistent paycheck.

“I wish I could stay at home with my family,” he said. “But we need steady work, and Malaysia is a good place for that.”

Or domestic worker Gina Cajugao, who has been working for the same family for over 20 years.

To build a better future for her two sons, she had to leave them behind in the Philippines while she cared for another family’s children.

“I see how I’ve raised Jim (her employer’s son) to become so big and handsome, but I didn’t do that for my own sons,” she said, tearing up at the thought of celebrating yet another Christmas away from her own husband and children.

Then there’s Iqbal, who is a construction worker. When asked what he misses the most about his home, he said his mother’s cooking.

Thang (not his real name) pines for his hometown, but he’s here as a refugee with no hope of returning. He grows corn in Cameron Highlands, just like he used to back home.

Shamsul wishes he could’ve been home for his daughter's elementary school graduation.

Despite all their personal heartaches and sacrifices, they, alongside millions of migrant workers, have all come to Malaysia for a better life.

Not to steal our jobs, but to create a better future for themselves and their families by cooking our meals, building our homes, and raising our children.

They are part of the Malaysian narrative. Let’s hope policymakers take this into account.

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