LAST_UPDATESat, 23 Jun 2018 10am

Migrant Workers: Malaysia's 'Invisible' Workforce

“MIGRATION is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family,” - Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General

According to UN statistics from 2014, there are around 232 million international immigrants in the world, a number which is increasing every year.

Call them migrant worker, guest worker, foreign labour or for the professional working class, the term ‘expatriate’ is still used, the term “migrant worker” has various connotations in different parts of the world. According to the United Nations, the definition is broad and it may include any persons working outside of their country of birth.

In Malaysia, migrant workers come from more than 12 countries in Asia with the majority coming from Indonesia, according to Fair Labour Association, an international non-profit collaboration promoting international labour laws.  Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines also supply a large number of the migrant workers population in Malaysia.

Delegates attending the National Council of Professors' (MPN) Conference on 'National Dilemma: Issues and Challenges of Foreign Workers in Malaysia' in Kuala Lumpur on December 16, 2014 had stated that there are about 2.9 million legal foreign workers in Malaysia (out of an estimated 6 million but the issue of illegal migrant workers is a separate story), citing figures provided to them by the police.

National labour statistics show that nearly 40% of migrant workers had no formal education, as compared to the 10% with tertiary experience. It is also worth noting that the share of migrants working in white-collar occupations has plummeted dramatically from a peak level of 10% in 2002 to 5.8% in 2008 due to rising domestic education and expertise levels.

Last week, Malaysian Digest reached out to some of these workers to find out what they think as soon as they set foot here and how it is like to work in Malaysia.

Let’s Hear From Malaysia’s Migrant Workforce

Following are a selection of views received throughout the interviews.

“I have been living here for three weeks now. I love Malaysia. The people here are friendly, kind and warm. Although the first few days here were almost a culture shock since I barely speak English and Malay, but that was totally a new and exciting learning experience …The cultural diversity and the foods here are just awesome!” Dominique Boudet, 55, an osteopathic physician from Bordeaux, France

“I love working in Malaysia since it is a peaceful country. It was love at first sight for me the moment I landed here one year ago. I like the people here so much since they are helpful and humble. It has been a great experience living and working here so far. I always tell my students here how lovely it is to teach them. It really impressed me to see my students of different races, creed and religions mix well and has no problem accept respective cultures.”  – Zhang Bi Qian, 29, a linguistic lecturer from China

“I started working here since 2012. I had never travelled out of my country before I came here. I love working and living here because Malaysia is a peaceful country. Although the people here are sometimes rude and bad-mannered, but I must say smiles are quick to flourish across the lips of most Malaysians. My boss and colleagues here are friendly, kind and caring. They treat me well.” – Sunnil Dev, 23, a security guard from Nepal

“My first impression for Malaysia was not that good because the first place (Shah Alam) I visited upon my arrival here was surprisingly dirty…It has been 11 years since I first started to work here. Before I came here, I only know Islam is the official religion here. After working here more than ten years now, I must say Malaysia is a peaceful country and it is just like my second home now.” – Mohammad Faruk Hossain, 34, a plantation worker from Bangladesh

These voices represent only half of the migrant workforce with the other half falling into the illegal category. Various non-governmental groups have tried to reach out to this largely undocumented group as their huge numbers requires some form of intervention, outreach and support.

Global Voices, an international outfit which employs citizen media reporting to “give voice to marginalized and misrepresented communities” presented a video by Engage Media titled ‘Crossroads: Video Stories of Migrants in Malaysia’ on 9 May last year which gives voice to this invisible workforce.


MPN Deputy Secretary-General Prof Dr Kamaruddin M. Said had said at the MPN Conference that “Malaysia must come to terms with the fact that it will continue to rely on foreign labour to keep its industries running, for the simple reason that there are not enough Malaysians to fill in the millions of jobs available.

“Of the country’s 30 million citizens, seven million are still in school and there are an estimated 13 million new job openings in various sectors ranging from agriculture to manufacturing,” he added.

Migrant Workers : The Hidden Economic Catalyst

In an interview with Malaysian Digest, Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan (pic) said there are currently 2.8 to 2.9 million migrant workers in Malaysia. Foreign labour, especially the blue-collar workers, contributes quite significantly to the national economy as they contribute about 10%-11% to national economy.

Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan is the executive director of Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan is the executive director of Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) “Despite the fact that they actually contribute positively to our country, there is still uneasiness among some Malaysians on the presence of foreign workers. In general, the perception of Malaysians towards migrant workers has been quite negative,” he admitted.

“Many blaming fingers are pointed on them when migrant workers and its impacts on our society are being brought up. In fact, in many circumstances, the mere mention of migrant workers is usually greeted with a smirk and negativity.

“Some even believe that the influx of foreign workers is the main culprit of the increasing of crime rates in the country. I must say this is an untrue fact or statement in essence because the cases of crime involving migrant workers is only less than 10% of the total crime cases nationwide,” he said.

When asked what MEF has done to discard the negative perception Malaysians have towards migrant workers, he said, “We are currently collaborating with International Labour Organization (ILO) for various projects and roadshows with the aim to promote a positive image of migrant workers and acknowledge their contribution to Malaysia’s workforce.”

“The number of migrant workers in Malaysia is relatively high and their contribution to the national economy should not be overlooked,” he added.

Small Steps, Big Move

The International Labour Organization (ILO) through the Tripartite Action to Protect Migrants Workers in the Greater Mekong Sub-region from Labour Exploitation (GMS Triangle) have been working to promote better understanding between Malaysians and migrant workers.

When contacted, GMS TRIANGLE national project coordinator, Anni Santhiago (pic) told Malaysian Digest that migrant workers are actually here to respond to the market needs especially in the field of plantation, construction and manufacturing, dismissing the claims that they are wage depressant. Anni Santhiago is the GMS TRIANGLE national project coordinator Anni Santhiago is the GMS TRIANGLE national project coordinator

“Foreign workers make up around 50% of the construction workforce in the country; while they make up nearly 60% for the workforce in the manufacturing sector. Currently, they [migrant workers] make up approximately 20% of the labour force in Malaysia.

“MEF worked with ILO and other stakeholders in creating a public service announcement for a campaign named ‘Migration Campaign’. This campaign was first launched in 2012 together with Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) and local NGOs to strengthen the role of employers in protecting migrant workers’ rights.

“It is hope that with this kind of campaign, we can help to discard the negative perception the general public has towards foreign workers in the country so that they are respected and be treated equally,” she said.

Elaborating further on the efforts to create positive perception towards migrant workers, she said: “We are now working on ILO’s GMS TRIANGLE project. It is a five-year project aims to strengthen the formulation and implementation of recruitment and labour protection policies and practices.”

“The project is operational in six countries namely Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam with its aims to strengthen policy and legislation, build capacity of stakeholders and provide services to migrant workers,” she pointed out.

“I believe with these kinds of campaigns it would help to project a positive image of migrant workers among the general public, employers and other stakeholders,” she added.

Dispelling Prejudices And Misconceptions

Although the Government has promised to cut down the influx of migrant workers, but it is undeniable that migrant workers are often accused as a wage depressant in Malaysia as their number has rocketed from 1,470,000 in 2004 to 2,100,000 in 2009.

It is important to note that the migrant workforce has played a crucial role nationally and across local communities. The Government should play an intermediary role by bridging the relevant stakeholders and employers as well as to support for and advocacy to improve the welfare of the migrant workers to the betterment of the national economy as a whole.

Over the years, many NGOs have urged the Government to quit seeing migrant workers as a security threat and to give green light to the Ministry of Human Resources to liaise between the relevant agencies. Numerous steps can be taken by the Government to hold the circumstances under control.

In the past year, sensational cases of alleged abuse of migrant workers have periodically made headlines including international media coverage of alleged mistreatment of refugees and migrants but the reality of migrant workers are not widely known or reported in the media. Various negative stereotypes exist that can lead to hostile perceptions in their host community.

In May 2014, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) had given Malaysia a dismal report card as ‘among the worst places to work’. Malaysia had earned a 5 ranking, with 1 being countries with highest approval ratings and 5 being the second lowest in terms of violations of workers’ rights (5+ being the lowest assigned to countries with military occupation or internal unrest).

As Malaysia employs the highest number of migrant workers in Southeast Asia, our country has to take the initiative to lead by example. Clearly, organizations like MEF, MTUC and GMS TRIANGLE have a daunting challenge ahead of them to tackle entrenched negative perception and to play a crucial role in getting the real situation of migrant workers out to the public as well.

-- mD