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Covid-19: Tough action against foreign illegals? What else is new….

Will Malaysians take over the void left behind by foreign workers at the Selayang wholesale market?

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Written by Aziz Hassan

May 27, 2020.

Recollections & Reflections

WHEN there are too many of them in any city or country, the locals understandably tend to view them with apprehension and even suspicion but migrant workers are a source of much needed labour in many countries, especially to do menial jobs shunned by locals.

In Southeast-Asia they are a familiar sight in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand but while their presence is most regulated in Singapore, the story is entirely different in Thailand and Malaysia, where apart from the ones with legitimate documents, no one knows exactly how many undocumented ones there are but almost everyone you talk to gives an estimate of 1:1 for the lawful group and the undocumented migrants. But former prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad did say while on a visit to Bangkok in late October 2018 that at that time Malaysia had seven million immigrants. If you cannot trust the prime minister who can you trust?

However there have been contradictions regarding the number of immigrant workers, documented or otherwise. The numbers you hear depend on who you talk to.

Although the details are not comprehensive and the ones from the Malaysian Employers Federation must be only on documented workers, it only goes to prove the point about contradictions on the actual numbers.

Another reference that may help is from Wikipedia and there’s also this news item from last year. But as if the ones mentioned so far are no enough to make a confusing situation more confused, there is also this report from the World Bank.

The number of undocumented foreign workers picked up following the Covid-19 outbreak is just a tiny drop in the ocean

In recent days quite a number of these foreign workers were detained in operations linked to the Covid-19 infections, with most picked up from the Selayang wholesale market area, Kuala Lumpur’s Masjid India, the Petaling Jaya Old Town wet market and Pudu but the total is only a tiny drop in the ocean when seen against the statistics found in the links provided here.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the minister in charge of the security cluster, has stated that the undocumented workers will be deported. There have been objections from a few NGOs but this is a perfectly lawful decision, with or without Covid-19.

Over the years there have been amnesty programmes too but no Malaysian is about to believe you when told that the number of immigrants has been significantly reduced as a result. On the contrary, they are visible in almost every part of KL and other major towns in the country. And in certain zones within KL and these other towns, the presence of immigrants who have taken over small local businesses is so glaringly conspicuous.

Following the rounding-up of these foreigners came the usual statements about wanting to change the situation for the better for Malaysians, who it is hoped will step in to fill the void at the wholesale market for example. Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa has been the most vocal and the one who sounds the most determined to achieve this objective. Whether or not he can achieve what so many others before him had failed to do will be closely watched.

Employers prefer foreign labour purely for economic reasons and the practicality of it all. Hiring them means lower overheads but while Annuar’s intention is noble, you can be forgiven for feeling pessimistic that many Malaysians will be excited to take over from the Bangladeshis, Rohingyas and Myanmar in Selayang.

There are many reasons why Malaysians have shunned these jobs for years. Agreed that not many may be resilient enough to withstand the physical rigours of working at a construction site or in an oil palm plantation but in the other sectors, the working or employment conditions are not that much better.

The typical kongsi for foreign construction workers surely cannot qualify to be decent accommodation

For one, these workers are paid daily, which means no income for each day he is absent. A 12-hour or 14-hour working day without overtime is the norm, with one off day every two weeks.

Unlike those lawfully employed, meaning documented workers, the others are not paid overtime and not offered medical and insurance benefits. Annual leave is Greek to the workers. If there’s a serious problem dismissal is often on the spot, with no recourse to legal remedy.

No we hear that a law to compel employers to provide decent accommodation to their foreign workers was in fact passed last year but no one talked about this until only a few days ago and that too because of the Covid-19 infections affecting foreign workers packed like sardines between 12 and even 20 of them in one apartment. Would you believe it that regulations pertaining to (decent) accommodation for foreign workers were already put in place in 2016 when what we have seen are kongsis (workers quarters) that not many of us will want to be seen near at, let alone live in.

When you look at the bigger picture, it is not just about being lazy or unwilling to do the dirty, hard work as often lamented by Mahathir. It has everything to do with providing workers with a package worth the effort expected of them and this includes a decent salary, overtime, medical and insurance benefits, annual leave and a regulated employment scheme. Until the country starts to adopt this position, it is highly unlikely many young Malaysians will want to fill the gaps left behind by the foreigners who years dominated the workforce at the Selayang wholesale wet market or the smaller one on Jalan Raja Alang sandwiched between Kampung Baru and Chow Kit.

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About the author

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Aziz Hassan

A journalist since July 1976 with both the English and Malaya press and was with two newspaper groups before The Mole. Does corporate report-writing and translation in his free time. Currently also a contributing weekly rugby columnist for the New Straits Times.