Economists and NGOs have welcomed a suggestion that refugees and undocumented migrants be recruited to help resolve the labour crunch in sectors reliant on foreign workers.
The proposal was mooted by the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF), which said the plantations industry alone had suffered losses of RM30 billion due to a shortage of workers.
MEF president Syed Hussain Syed Husman said although the freeze on foreign worker recruitment had been lifted in February, the application and approval process was not running smoothly, with no workers brought in so far.
Barjoyai Bardai of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman said in terms of cost of living, the suggestion would allow the country to save on the expense and burden of caring for such groups.
“We would also benefit more than 100,000 people who currently feel that they are suffering because they are restricted in detention camps,” he told MalaysiaNow.
“They have waited a long time to be sent to third countries where they might receive new citizenship.”
Mahi Ramakrishnan, an activist with NGO Beyond Borders Malaysia, said while many often speak of the impact of refugees and undocumented foreign workers on employment opportunities for locals, absorbing such groups to address the shortage of labour in some sectors would be a prudent move.
“What’s important is to ensure that they are accorded rights and benefits together with a salary package,” she said.
“What’s a concern is the abuse and possible exploitation of these workers.”
Common patterns of abuse include withholding salaries, confiscating their passports, and reporting them to the authorities once their work is completed to avoid having to pay them.
Mahi said there was a need for an effective mechanism for complaints, adding that reports of abuse must be taken seriously.
There are an estimated half a million refugees in Malaysia, the majority of whom are Rohingya.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Mahi said there were enough refugees and undocumented migrants in the country to meet industry needs.
“It doesn’t make financial sense to bring in workers from overseas,” she added.
Malaysia is expected to take in some 500,000 workers from Bangladesh this year.
But while recruiting refugees and undocumented migrants might make sense, Barjoyai said that long-term plans should be taken into consideration.
“They will live a normal life along with the rest of us, but for how long?” he said.
“Will we then give them citizenship or will they have to continue waiting to be transferred to a third country?”
In terms of skill sets, he added, not all of them would be a good fit for agricultural work or jobs categorised as dirty, dangerous and difficult.
“We would have to classify them accorsing to skills, interest and qualification, and try to place them in the most suitable sector,” he said.
Rohingya activist Mohamad Sadek Ali Hussein said the group was particularly vulnerable throughout the wait for a long-term solution.
“Any form of temporary work would be greatly appreciated,” he said, adding that this would be considered a huge effort by Malaysia towards ending the refugee crisis and alleviating poverty.
Mahi meanwhile said that the current minimum wage was too low for even local workers to support their families.
“There is little evidence that the entrance of migrant workers reduces the pay of low-skilled local workers who are already paid a pittance,” she said.
“The absorption, especially of highly skilled migrants or refugees into the workforce, would increase innovation with potentially positive effects on productivity in the long run.”