Sunday October 24, 2004

Malaysia firms shrug off prospect of worker exodus

By Jalil Hamid

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Malaysian industry sought on Friday to ease concern that a government offer to 1.2 million illegal workers to leave the country without being prosecuted would cause labour shortages.
In a repeat of a similar move two years ago, Malaysia said on Thursday illegal workers had two weeks to leave without fear of being fined or whipped, raising concern their exit could harm the economy. Labour shortages hit the farm and construction sectors after the 2002 amnesty.
But the building and palm oil industries, two key sectors that rely heavily on workers from neighbours like Indonesia, said the latest amnesty was unlikely to disrupt their businesses.
The country is home to 2.4 million foreigners, half of them working illegally in factories, palm oil estates and construction sites. Indonesians form the bulk of illegal immigrants. "It's too early to gauge the impact," said Wan Chee Leong, secretary-general of the Master Builders' Association, which groups the country's construction firms.
"But the proportion of illegal workers in construction projects is relatively small. Assuming all of them leave, the impact will not be serious," he told Reuters.
The sector, making up just under 10 percent of the economy, employs a few hundred thousand illegal workers, Wan said.
The government's budget tightening has also resulted in fewer public projects, thus fewer jobs.
The undocumented migration flow of Indonesians into Malaysia is arguably the second largest flow of illegal immigrants in the world after the movements across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Indonesian workers, as Malaysian employers readily admit, come cheap, speak the language, and are readily available.
Indonesians, too, know that they are indispensable to the Malaysian economy, with or without the work permits.
Palm oil estates also rely heavily on foreign labour. Malaysia is the world's biggest producer of the edible oil. "The amnesty is only for the illegals and as far as the plantation sector is concerned, there are no illegals employed in West Malaysia," said M.R. Chandran, chairman of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association.
The government said the amnesty would be in force from Oct. 29 to Nov. 14 at 19 exit points in the country. The immigrants must arrange their own passage and pay the fares.
It was a chance for illegal immigrants to return to their home countries voluntarily before a large-scale deportation exercise begins in January, Home Minister Azmi Khalid said.
The government says it wants foreign workers to help maintain strong economic growth but needs to clean up its labour market.
Foreigners entering Malaysia illegally or overstaying their visas can be jailed up to five years or fined up to 10,000 ringgit ($2,631). Men aged below 50 may also face whipping.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"