KUALA LUMPUR (Jan 14): Profiteering, rather than market demand, could be behind the plan to still bring in 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers, said trade groups as local businesses face a rough year and more Malaysians lose their jobs.
The nation’s two largest groups of employers and private sector workers showed a rare moment of agreement when they both challenged the government’s persistent claims that industries needed these 1.5 million extra foreign workers.
The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) usually disagree on everything concerning labour issues.
But in separate interviews, they both said that the billion-ringgit foreign labour supplier industry could be influencing the so-called demand for these 1.5 million new workers.
This is since each foreign worker usually nets a supplier between RM3,000 and RM4,000 per person in net profit, they said. Another cash cow was online services to process the applications.
Other critics of the plan such as Klang MP Charles Santiago (pic, below left) also pointed to the presence of former ministry officials in the business as a sign that this industry was having an undue influence in the plan and on foreign labour policies in general.
And then there’s the huge number of undocumented foreign workers, which the groups claimed could number 2.3 million or one for each legal worker.
“So, why not legalise and use the ones that are already here?” Santiago asked.
Where’s the demand?
Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had said that the 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers would be brought in stages and that they were needed in the plantation sector. He had also said their numbers would be tweaked and they would be distributed to other sectors, including manufacturing and construction.
The Malayan Agricultural Producers Association (MAPA) refutes the suggestion that the sector needs as many as 1.5 million foreigners, saying that on average there was only a shortage of 10,000 to 20,000 every year as workers return to their home countries and the vacant spots need to be refilled.
MAPA director Mohamad Audong added that the entire sector only employed between 350,000 and 400,000 workers at any one time.
“We also don’t need 1.5 million new workers, if we can absorb the undocumented ones,” said Mohamad, whose organisation comprise big players in the palm oil industry, such as Sime Darby, Tabung Haji and Felda Global Ventures.
MEF executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan said the association has not seen any evidence or survey that showed Malaysian companies needed as many as 1.5 million new Bangladeshis.
“With the softening labour market, we also doubt that taking in this many is good for the long-term health of the economy.
“We currently have 2.3 million legal foreign workers. I doubt that in this economic climate we can absorb 2.3 million plus 1.5 million extra foreigners. This plan will only work if we deport 1.5 million illegal workers first,” Shamsuddin said.
Shamsuddin said if the business aspect was removed from foreign worker recruitment, the demand for them would not be as high as 1.5 million.
The plan also did not make sense given that companies are facing a severe drop in business and Malaysian workers are being retrenched.
Last year 20,000 workers were laid off and the MEF expects the trend to continue this year.
This lack of proof that there was demand from the plantation sector, among others, is why Santiago suspects that the plan is being underwritten by labour suppliers and companies involved in the industry.
For instance, a report claimed that Synerflux, was controlled by former Home Minister Tan Sri Azmi Khalid. His name was also tied to Bestinet, a firm that was awarded the contract to run a system to process foreign worker visas and conduct biometric checks.
The system was suspended in January last year, after PKR linked the company to Azmi and former Labour Department director Datuk Tengku Omar Tengku Bot.
“No one knows how these agreements are being signed and there is great suspicion that the suppliers are influencing the civil servants who are doing the deals.
“No one is able to see the agreements and there are never representatives from trade unions or companies when these deals are made.”
Unless Putrajaya releases a labour needs impact assessment to back up its claims, there will always be the fear that the plan is being fuelled by greed rather actual need, said Santiago.