I SUPPORT the view expressed by economist Dr Yeah Kim Leng, who said the reduction of foreign labour in the private sector should be done in phases, with a three- to five-year lead time for employers to make adjustments to their production.
A rushed approach will disrupt our economy.
It is discomfiting to hear that the government is allowing another 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers to come in, considering that Malaysia has six million foreign workers, of whom four million are illegal.
The large number of illegal or undocumented workers is a cause for concern. As the size of our labour force is estimated at 12 million, the proportion of foreign workers is staggering.
I recall that in Germany, when they found that the influx of Turkish, Romanian and other foreign workers was causing their ratio to the labour force to rise fast to about 10 per cent, there was alarm that if the trend continued, there would be foreign ghettos springing up in German cities.
In Malaysia, the ratio is now 50 per cent of the labour force. We should, therefore, be equally worried.
In Kuala Lumpur, we see migrant colonies being built next to upscale residential areas.
There are concerns about hygiene and the spread of diseases carried by the flies that thrive in dirty drains and makeshift toilets in these colonies.
In wet markets, it is well known that local traders are being displaced by the more aggressive foreign competitors.
Although one can argue that this competition is good for the consumers as they can buy cheaper from foreigners operating shops, food stalls and restaurants, and that in a tight labour market, the foreigners are not taking away jobs from locals, there is the risk that if our economy goes into a recession and workers are retrenched, unemployed Malaysians may take out their frustration on foreigners who remain employed because of their low wages.
This happened in Europe when their economy went into a prolonged recession.
Jobs became scarce and youth unemployment soared.
Right-wing young protestors attacked foreign ghettos and shops.
Every crime was blamed on foreigners and this became an excuse for thugs to attack foreigners.
Racist politicians made the situation worse by championing the anti-foreign sentiment.
We agree that Malaysia needs foreign skills to power its growth. We can say that the more highly skilled the foreign workers, the better for our economy.
We need cheap foreign labour in certain sectors, like construction and oil palm and rubber plantations, to keep their costs competitive.
Maids should continue to be imported to free our married women to work.
On humanitarian grounds, the government is setting minimum wages and conditions of employment for foreign workers to safeguard their interests against unscrupulous employers.
Children and families of foreign workers have access to our education and health services, provided they pay for the services.
It is right that we should treat foreign workers with humanity, as they contribute to our economic growth. At the same time, we should also be more selective in allowing more unskilled foreign workers in.
Above all, the government should set targets for reducing their percentage in the labour force, as envisaged in the New Economic Model.
When the private sector is convinced that the government is serious about limiting the use of foreign labour, and employers are given guidelines to make adjustments, they will accept that they have to begin using more automation in manufacturing production lines, in petrol stations or in restaurants.
Now, because of the changes in government policy, no one in the private sector believes it is necessary to prepare for automation.
In view of the credibility gap, there is a cynical view circulating as to why the approved permits for import of foreign labour continue to be issued liberally.