Saturday, September 29, 2007

Foreign help, local strength (Star)

Foreign help, local strength

A choice must be made between convenience and self-reliance as far as foreign workers are concerned.

IT IS widely said that the three Telcos (Maxis, Celcom and Digi) have got a department each that specialises in creating jokes that are sent out as SMSes to their subscribers to circulate.

Sometimes the jokes fall flat but one of these jokers must deserve an A++ for their latest anecdote that was sent out a couple of weeks ago.

Entitled The Malaysian Dilemma, The tale goes like this:

Get Vietnamese workers, dogs missing;

Get Bangladeshi workers, Malay girls missing;

Get Indonesian workers, money missing;

Get Indian workers, jewellery missing;

Get Chinese workers, husbands missing.

(I apologise for the generalisation and any racist connotation in this joke but you must agree it is quite funny).

What is not funny, however, is not the dilemma of the missing stuff but rather we must be the only country in the world that has not achieved developed status but is so dependent on foreign labour.

According to the Auditor-General’s annual report that as of December last year, the number of foreign workers in the country was 1.87 million of which more than 66% were from Indonesia.

The audit also stated that there were 1.47 million foreign workers in 2004 and 1.815 million in 2005. These figures do not take into account the illegal ones.

However, it is estimated that there are as many illegal foreign workers as legal ones in the country bringing their total to well over three million.

With our own nationals numbering about 25 million, this means that foreign workers equal 12% of Malaysians. For that matter, at 1.87 million, the legal foreign workers already match the number of Malaysian Indians (1.88million).

I do not deny that the tremendous growth of our nation has been carried out on the backs of many of these foreigner workers.

The KLIA or Petronas Twin Towers would not have been built if not for the thousands of foreign workers brought in. Many of our huge factories would have ground to a halt if not for these people as well.

Many of us working parents (me included) would not have been able to raise our kids without the help of foreign domestic maids.

I have no quarrel with SMEs, huge factories and the construction industry hiring foreign workers. Of course selfishly I also am not against hiring foreign maids.

But, what about a Char Kuay Teow stall operator having an Indonesian worker as an assistant or even worse an entire food outlet run by ex-Filipino maids?

In my neighbourhood, there is a stall called the Bentong Chicken Rice and guess what? The eatery is managed and operated by three Myanmar nationals. I wonder if the three guys even know where Bentong is?

Is there any justification for foreign labour in such places?

The stall owners will claim that they have tried hiring locals but no Malaysian is willing to work such jobs with such a salary.

Of course, no Malaysian will take up such a job if the salary is low.

Street food stalls are supposed to be owner operated businesses and if these people can afford to hire foreign workers to work for them then they are no longer “poor hawkers.”

Therefore they should either declare themselves as restaurants or offer better salaries to attract locals to work for them.

Three years ago, the Treasury’s Economic Report acknowledged that the growing number of foreign workers was becoming a problem for this country.

“Their presence has also put stress on public amenities and services, such as the provision of public services, health and education facilities,” said the report, which added that these workers remitted RM11.2bil back to their home country.

As for rounding up illegal workers, the report stated that it was also a very expensive affair. On meals alone, the Government spent between RM3mill and RM4mil a year to feed those detained.

In this year’s Economic Report, the country’s labour force is given as 11.77 million people of whom 11.39 million are gainfully employed. This means that the number of Malaysians who are unemployed is about 380,000 or 2.6%.

If we discount the number of homemakers from this figure then the number of those really without jobs is very small.

Therefore are we prepared for more foreigners to come into our country to seek employment for jobs we are unable to fill or are we going to move our economy away from activities that are labour-intensive?

If we choose the former path then we must look at places like Dubai and Kuwait where the foreign worker population outnumbers citizens.

However, being oil rich states, they can afford to provide public services to their guest workers without strain on their coffers. Can Malaysia do the same?

A more logical but much more painful way is to steer away from dependence on foreign workers like what Australia is doing.

Just like Malaysia, this southern hemisphere country has a small population in relations to its land size. The local businesses there have learnt to make do with the number of people they have.

Check into any Australian hotel or service apartment and you will find only two people at the reception. One doubles up as the bellhop while the other will also be the maintenance person. A third person will be in the back office and also act as the manager and housekeeper.

They have learnt to be efficient and they have also learnt to pay their staff well. Actually, they are just paying their staff one-and-a-half salary for doing the jobs of two or three people.

However, from time to time Australia will “import” skilled workers that they find that the country is short of and will offer easy migration entry for people with such skills.

Maybe, this is the way to go..

But there is of course a third way. We can all work very hard and produce as many Malaysian babies as possible thus creating enough people as the future work force for all sectors. Say, a population of 50 million by 2020?

  • Senior News Editor Wong Sai Wan is neither xenophobic nor racist but wonders if the country can afford to continue to import workers.

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