Doubts over Malaysia’s proposed ID system for foreign workers amid labor shortage


Malaysia has proposed an identification card system for foreign workers based on their employment sector, but experts are concerned that the system could make it harder to tackle an acute shortage of foreign labor and also hurt migrant rights.

Human Resources Minister Saravanan Murugan said on Sunday (June 12) that the new identification system is to prevent foreign laborers from switching to different sectors arbitrarily, enticed by higher salaries.

It will also ensure that no employer misuses worker registration, he said.

“The levy rate for the agricultural sector is cheaper… many employers, even those in different sectors, bring in foreign workers through the agricultural channel because it is cheaper.”

The Human Resources Ministry did not give details on the system or specify a timeline for the roll-out.

Experts on migrant issues have raised questions about the new documentation process, saying it could end up being redundant and will do little to address the country’s more immediate concerns regarding a shortage of workers.

Joseph Paul Maliamauv, a consultant with migrant rights advocacy group Tenaganita, said workers can already be identified by their sectors that are stated in their work permits, which are attached to their passports.

“I don’t know how this is supposed to work,” he said.

He cautioned that adding another layer of documentation could mean more abuse and further slow down Malaysia’s attempts to resolve its labor shortage.

Foreign workers already have to wait for more than a month after their work permit approval to get their permit sticker that allows them to start work, and the new card could make the wait longer, he said.

The Malaysian authorities had been criticized previously for their handling of migrant rights, with critics saying that migrants had often been harassed by the enforcement authorities.

“The minister has said that the labor (shortage) issue will take time to resolve due to the lengthy (recruitment) process. So the work should be on reducing the process instead,” said Maliamauv.

Adrian Pereira, executive director at human rights non-profit organization North South Initiative, said the best practices at the International Labor Organization state that workers should not be confined to a particular sector and should have the right to change employers.

“We can make migrant life very difficult in this country. Workers should have some flexibility and some backup (to find other jobs),” he said.

Adrian noted that “unnecessary bureaucracy” is holding the business sector and migrants at ransom.

The country reopened its borders and economy this year, but the influx of foreign labor has been slow as it struggles to finalize bilateral deals to bring back foreign workers from countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia, Malaysia’s biggest source of foreign labor.

Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, an associate director at Vriens & Partners, a government regulatory affairs and political risk consultancy firm, said the Human Resources Ministry needs to share more details on its proposed system.

“What is the data to show that foreign workers are switching jobs, and which industry is most impacted? Do workers not already have permits and IDs? Do they have to apply twice?” said Shazwan.

He warned that a lack of clarity on the regulation and the reasoning behind the proposed system could bring about a “trust deficit” with countries supplying foreign labor.



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