Unsurprisingly, Kuala Lumpur takes the lead in weeding out middlemen or agents from its pre-existing migrant workers' recruitment policies and practices. In a propitious combination of circumstances, one may add, Malaysia measures up to the need for initiating a fair recruitment deal with the underpinnings of a productive, secure work environment for the migrant workers.
First and foremost, as the largest employer of migrant labour in the Southeast Asia region, it had to set a positive example as a host country. It has a dependency on hired workers in its vast plantation and construction sectors where the locals are said to be averse to be employed in.
Hence, the Malaysian authorities couldn't but be sensitive to the hit its reputation was taking through exploitative, abusive treatment of workers by the middlemen or the pernicious agency system synonymous with them. There is an added dimension of human trafficking to be tackled.
The so-called agencies had extracted such high sums from the job seekers, part of which they would have procured from money lenders at exorbitant rate of interest, that the employees would be subjected to a modern-day slavery known as debt bondage. They will be working for years without earning enough for their keeps nor for their intended beneficiaries at home. Actually, their frequent recourse to overtime in a bid to repay their mounting debts burst forth as a veritable scandal nudging the authorities into realising what dire strait things have come to! This is analogous to indentured labour being tied hand and foot by solely one-sided contracts as though a throw-back to a medieval time wrap.
Secondly, and perhaps the most forceful factor for change in the recruitment policy for migrants has been the reform agenda of the conscientious government led by Mahathir Mohammed. Since he came to power, Mahathir has been constantly harping on the theme of alleviating the plight of migrant workers. So on the back of Nepal's temporary suspension of sending workers to Kuala Lumpur due to concerns over their treatment in light of what their predecessors had faced, the Malaysian government struck a deal with Nepal to directly recruit workers from the Kingdom without going through agents.
According to the agreement, Malaysian employers will bear all the recruitment costs, air fare and visa and medical check-up fees. One has to wait and watch how the switch-over works on the ground, viz., in workplace situation and in terms of salary structure.
What augurs well for us is the Malaysian minister for human resources M. Kulasegaran has made it known that Kuala Lumpur will be negotiating similar agreements with Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam. But we need to fortify our deals in a way that we do not have a roller-coaster ride with on-again, off-again regularisation/legalisation exercises. Let's not forget that there are thousands of workers without work permits.
The economic wings of our foreign missions are known to have set targets to fulfil year-on-year basis; how far they are proving equal to the task is a matter to be audited and publicised. If their work is hindered in any way, the shortcoming too should be attended to and redressed.
It can be hardly overemphasised that a trained crop of economic cadre personnel in consultation with skill development institutes and successful enterprises need to chart a course of action to cater for the manpower requirements across continents. How long shall we be confined to servicing low-end employment opportunities?
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