Time to rethink role of agents in foreign labour hiring in Malaysia

The recent announcement by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to reduce, if not eliminate the role of recruitment agencies, requires a sobering thought.

There are several reasons as to why Malaysia has become dependent on recruitment agencies to perform the primary responsibility of the government to search for trained human resources to occupy jobs in the labour market.

In many sending and receiving countries of labour migrants, the government takes the lead in sourcing, managing, and regulating foreign labour. In the specific aspect of recruitment, the government ensures that it is hiring workers with the required competencies.

What is also of concern is Malaysia’s views on the entry of foreign workers into the country. Seemingly, there is a disconnect between the need to have the required skillsets or qualifications among the hired workers, and a perceived understanding that their presence poses a national security risk.

What is even more disconcerting is that both viewpoints have become diluted, hazy, and ambiguous, as regulations, and ad hoc policies on migration management are implemented on the ground.

This ambiguity is palpable, and one strong indication is the flagrant violation of the law where human trafficking, forced labour, exploitation, lack of access to legal remedies, and exorbitant recruitment fees are the regular ‘constants’ in the labour migration enterprise.

Since the onset of the labour migration regime in the early 1980s – in response to then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s industrialisation programme that was geared towards exports – Malaysia has yet to produce a comprehensive migration policy.

This is rather ironic, considering that about 15 per cent of the national labour force consists of foreigners.

With the lack of a holistic approach to the labour shortage that the country is currently facing, on the ground comes a myriad of intense, irreducible problems that are employment-related.

As it is, Malaysia cannot afford to continually recruit foreign labour without first addressing the fundamental question of how this government views the presence of foreign workers in the country.

To view the presence of foreign workers as a threat to national security is an ill-conceived idea.

As already shown, turning the issue of foreign labour in Malaysia into a security problem has:

  • produced a recalcitrant attitude of allowing different government agencies to handle labour migration matters, such as the Royal Malaysia Police, Human Resources Ministry, Department of Immigration, and the Department of Labour;
  • allowed the media to shape public opinion that foreign workers are poor, dirty, uncouth, and are potential criminals; and slowly driving a wedge of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and ‘we’ versus ‘they’; and
  • combined the effects of the aforementioned factors to help shape the practices and attitudes of recruitment agencies and employers in their dealings with foreign workers.

Employment abuses and exploitation include a lack of social protection, like medical benefits and weekly days off.

By exacting ridiculously exorbitant recruitment fees from employers and foreign workers, it demonstrates open defiance of any ad hoc government-imposed regulations.

Therefore, the call to eliminate the role of recruitment agencies in the whole migration saga has its basis.

Employers are often at the mercy of recruitment agencies in more ways than one. As recruitment agencies deal directly with the workers, they fan concerns, such as advising employers to keep their domestic workers’ passports, confiscate their smartphones, deduct their meagre monthly salaries in the guise of ‘savings’, and/or disallow workers to go out on their own once a week.

They privilege themselves by saying that ‘if you give them too much freedom, they will run away’.

Most employers believe the recruitment agencies, since employers have paid so much money to bring in foreign domestic workers.

Some employers pay as much as RM16,000 to RM18,000 to the agents to bring in a worker through legal means, contending that they pay ‘runners’ from the sending and receiving countries, to the detriment of employers and workers.

On the ground, for instance, foreign domestic workers seem to suffer a lot because of the nature of employment and the fact that workers are placed in individual homes, work in isolation, and away from the public ‘gaze’, and hence, are difficult to monitor.

The organisation of domestic work is such that hired domestic workers live together with the employers and family/household members. Live-out arrangement is not the norm, although there is a growing number of employers who prefer to free their foreign domestic workers on weekends to allow a sense of privacy for both parties.

In response to the idea mooted by Anwar last month, some registered recruitment agencies argued that it is the unregistered/illegal agencies that carry out exploitative transactions with employers or workers.

There indeed exists a considerable number of unregistered/illegal agencies that violate labour regulations. It is also true that registered/legal agencies commit illicit acts to maximise profits and control both workers and employers.

These registered agencies sometimes work in cahoots with the employers, keeping the passports of domestic workers, even if it is against the Passport Act 1966 that Malaysia has enforced.

Alternatively, agents strongly argue that keeping the passport is consensual, which means that domestic workers have agreed to allow the employers or agencies to keep the passports on their behalf.

Migrant workers in the construction and manufacturing sectors also share similar issues related to abuses committed by recruitment agencies. Interestingly, the call to do away with recruitment agencies hiring foreign labour is already getting attention.

Perhaps it is time to look at how Hong Kong and Singapore have managed the migration regime, and maybe adopt better strategies to address employment problems.

In the same breath, Malaysia needs to seriously rethink the level of faith placed in the Labour Department to manage labour migration.

Allocating the management responsibility to so many agencies, as we do now, derails the hiring process and thickens the bureaucratic red tape, at the expense of well-meaning employers and workers.

Dr Linda Lumayag is a research fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies, Universiti Malaya.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.