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Malaysia’s massive foreign worker dependency

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 29 November 2019

On almost any Sunday afternoon, a visitor walking around Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market or Chow Kit areas is likely to encounter a variegated tapestry of nationals from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Nepal.

A visible and integral part of the country, they are ubiquitous across the country, travelling to and from local and internationally owned factories, on construction sites, as security guards, cleaners in office buildings and airports, waiters and cooks, in supermarkets, warehouses, retail stores, goldsmiths, and other service outlets, as street vendors and operating small food stalls. 

Too often they are stereotyped by locals as ‘low caste,’ with the jobs they do regarded as untouchable. They are perceived as dirty, perpetrators of crime, and even immoral. But the fact is that Malaysia, like many other relatively prosperous countries surrounded by relatively poorer ones, has been built on foreign labor going back to pre-independence times, starting with Chinese to work in tin mining and Indians brought by the British to work in rubber and oil palm plantations. And exploitation is likely to be rife, with illegal migrants subject to physical abuse, overworked, underpaid and often cheated.


Today, according to unofficial estimates, up to 6 million foreign workers are in Malaysia, or 18.6 percent of the country’s 32.6 million population. This expatriate labor force is made up of 2.27 million legally working and another 2.5 to 3.37 million illegal foreign ones. Foreign workers represent somewhere between 31-40 percent of the total Malaysian workforce of 15.3 million, employed primarily in what is called “3D” (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) jobs in the plantation, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and service sectors.

Foreign worker recruitment, processing, and placement is a massive business, worth more than RM2 billion (US$478 million) annually to manpower and private employment agencies. The costs of the extension process, extra charges made by private employment agencies and medical screening issues often encourage foreign workers once in Malaysia to work illegally. There is a ready market in counterfeit foreign worker cards, which would save the foreign worker RM4.5-5,000 per year in charges and immigration levies. There is an underground network in manpower agencies handling illegal workers.

In addition, many people from Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines enter illegally through the country’s porous borders by either sea or land. This is continuing today in unknown numbers, even after the 2015 discovery of the Wang Kelian transit camps on the northern border with Thailand, in which numerous bodies of apparently murdered illegal migrants were found.

The manpower business has no code of conduct, an industry that has attracted both domestic criminal elements and high-ranking government and political figures due to the lucrative profits and low risks. Many recruiting agencies are also money lenders, pressing workers for repayments at hefty interest rates.  The agencies have strong leverage over workers families at home, if loan payments fall behind.

The brother of former deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi was alleged to have created a manpower monopoly in which only one company could get worker approvals. Another report claimed that up to RM9,500 in bribeswas necessary per worker approval. The Nepali Times last year claimedthat a nexus of top Malaysian and Nepali politicians, bureaucrats, and businesspeople set up a system where all Nepali migrant workers had to take a biometric test through an approved company run by the syndicate. This report also linked Zahid, who is now facing charges, to the scam.  

It is not just the debt burden that is placed upon foreign workers before they arrive. They often work in horrid, sub-standard, dangerous conditions, with temperatures soaring into the 40s C.


Injuries and lost limbs are a common occurrence. It has been reported that an average of two Bangladeshi workers die in workplace related accidents each day. There have been numerous cases of mental and physical abuse – not just the workplace. There have been numerous cases of torture, cruelty and sexual abuse of domestic maids, which have at times strained diplomatic relations between Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Guardian reported on December 9, 2018that foreign workers in multinationals manufacturing in Malaysia are forced to work overtime each day with no weekly days off. Their living conditions are often cramped and over capacity, with employers deducting around 20 percent of wages to pay for food and accommodation.  They are often not paid what was agreed in their home countries. In some cases described Asia Sentinel, employers even send them home without paying them.

Some come without permits, on social visit passes to work in shops, food stalls, restaurants, entertainment outlets, and massage parlors. When raided, they face fines and jail before being deported, while the employer gets away without any legal censure or penalties.

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This article was first published in the Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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