The Malaysian government has initiated a ‘recalibration’ of undocumented foreign workers in its country that will benefit Nepalis who have been working there without proper papers.
Called the ‘Illegal Immigrant Recalibration Plan’ it is a part-regularisation-part-amnesty program that will allow undocumented migrants to return to their home countries, whereas the Labour Recalibration Program will allow undocumented workers to be employed in Malaysia in four sectors facing shortages: construction, manufacturing, plantation and agriculture.
The plan will go into effect from next week till 30 June 2021. The Malaysian government has often flipflopped on how to manage undocumented workers, mainly from Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Nepal, because of its inability to reconcile the need to reduce its overdependence on foreign workers with its labour shortage.
In July, the government had said the hiring of workers would be limited to construction, agriculture and in plantations. In August, after facing pressure from employers, this was revised to allow the rehiring of foreign workers in all sectors, as long as they had valid work permits and were going to be employed in the same sector.
The government has not agreed to allow the recruitment of new workers till the end of year, but the recruitment of undocumented workers should provide some respite to both the private sector and undocumented workers.
The Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association, for instance, says the industry is struggling to meet global demand for latex gloves during the pandemic and is facing a severe shortage of up to 25,000 workers, of which 15,000 are from abroad.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Association says a labour crunch is making the industry lose up to 25% potential palm oil yield. Efforts to recruit Malaysians including a wage subsidy program have been ramped up, but have largely failed to attract them.
Both palm oil and rubber gloves in Malaysia have been included in the US government’s 2020 list of goods made under forced labour conditions. The glove industry has made notable changes, especially the reimbursement of recruitment costs by major employers, after the largest firm Top Gloves faced a US ban earlier this year. The United States buys up to 36% of Malaysia’s latex glove exports.
Profits have soared as spot prices for latex gloves have increased from around $20 for 1,000 pairs pre-Covid to over $120 now. Lead order time has increased from 1.5 to 2 months to 1 to 2 years after the pandemic.
Malaysia accounts for 65% of the world’s supply of medical gloves and 70% of them are used in the US, Europe and Japan. Even before the pandemic the annual growth rate in the sector was 8-10%, and many Nepalis work in the factories. Even post Covid, glove demand is projected to grow.
A Nepali worker currently employed at Top Glove welcomes the recruitment of undocumented workers. Said one of them, “We have been working a lot for many months now, and the addition of workers will hopefully release some pressure on us. More Malaysian workers also means greater risk of Covid-19 because we live in hostels but local workers commute from outside and we don’t know where all they have been.”
Workers including Nepalis and Bangladeshis have been taken into quarantine recently after tests, and last week, Top Gloves confirmed that 17 of its employees had tested positive, and most of them were asymptomatic.
Malaysian Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin said this week, “Employment opportunities for local workers are assured subject to the policy on ration of local worker to foreign worker in effect now. For the time being, only employers operating in four sectors termed 3D — dangerous, difficult and dirty — are allowed to take in illegal immigrants as workers.”
These remarks, including his expectation that the Malaysian government would earn about US$ 22 million from fees imposed on the migrants and employers this year, was deemed by labour groups as being unappreciative of foreign workers.
Meanwhile, a Nepali security guard who has been undocumented for the past seven years, is hopeful. He told Nepali Times on the phone from Kuala Lumpur: “I have worked 12-hour shifts everyday even during the pandemic. If I got a job in manufacturing that pays more than what I am making now and can regularise my status, I would apply for it.”
Last December, 187,000 foreign nationals including 5,900 Nepalis out of a total of 1.2 million undocumented workers in Malaysia took advantage of the government’s ‘Back for Good’ amnesty drive.