PETALING JAYA: Allowing refugees to work and legalising undocumented foreign workers in Malaysia should be the priority before workers from Africa are brought into the country, say various groups.
Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan said legal refugees, numbering some 170,000 in Malaysia, could potentially fill any gap in the workforce.
“Even if we are able to encourage up to 70% to 80% of them to work, that is quite a large number of potential workers,” he said.
MEF is a known proponent of getting refugees to work as a way of addressing Malaysia’s labour shortages.
Shamsuddin added that another measure is to encourage older citizens to continue contributing to the workforce.
“This is a potential that we should really harness,” he said.
On recruiting Africans to work here, he noted the vast differences in culture that could make it harder for them to adapt in Malaysia.
At the same time, Shamsuddin reiterated the need for Malaysian businesses to move away from labour-intensive processes and shift towards automation.
Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers president Datuk Soh Thian Lai said the country, already flooded with foreign workers, have yet to resolve the issue of illegal and undocumented foreigners.
“The first priority is to solve this. I suggest that they be legalised, provided that they have valid passports, no criminal records and are physically healthy,” he said, adding that this will also help the government control their numbers and earn revenue from levy collection.
He also suggested for part of the levy to be channelled into a fund to help companies implement automation initiatives to reduce dependency on foreign workers.
Like Shamsuddin, Soh, too, said refugees could provide an additional source of labour supply as he suggested hiring those with UNHCR cards.
Malaysian Indian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association president Ayoob Khan said the bigger issue at hand is the entry of undocumented and illegal foreign workers.
“This system has to be corrected to investigate why this happens. Possible solutions would be for the government to hold townhalls with all the business and industry players on how to tackle this,” he said.
Plantation firm chief executive Datuk Dr Jessie Tang said the best solution to tackle the issue of labour shortage was by mechanising processes.
“New inventions and innovations are needed; for example, harvesting tools. We need to bring in expertise on this and work with the Government and top companies in China to come up with modern machines for the industry,” she said.
In Penang, the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) said Malaysia should stick with workers from the existing countries - Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar - as they have assimilated with the local culture.
“It’s also easier to train workers from these countries, something we have been doing for more than a decade.
“Why bring in workers from a country whose culture and customs are totally alien to ours?” said FMM Penang branch chairman Datuk Dr Ooi Eng Hock.
In Johor, the Johor South SME adviser Teh Kee Sin said it will be an unwise move to get African workers here as they live in another part of the world and are not suited for the local society compared to foreign workers from neighbouring countries.
“There are many differences in terms of lifestyle and working culture between African and Asian foreign workers.
“Some workers from Indonesia and Vietnam are no longer keen to come here due to the development in their own countries but Bangladeshis still favour Malaysia. So the government must act on this to fill the shortages,” he said when contacted.
Johor Indian Business Association president P. Sivakumar said he was baffled by the suggestion to bring in Africans to work as plantation workers.
“The government should look into using technology to help our plantation sector and cut down labour.
“Instead of bringing more foreign workers into Malaysia, the government should prioritise and help create more high-skilled jobs that promise better wages for locals,” he said.