By Eileen Ng
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Malaysia's government has relaxed a freeze on the recruitment of foreign workers in the services sector, with plans to bring in 45,000 Indians to meet a labor shortage that is undermining businesses, a Cabinet minister said Tuesday.
However, rights activists urged the government to allow more than 90,000 refugees in the country to work instead of importing more foreign workers.
Malaysia relies heavily on foreigners mainly from other Asian nations such as Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar for low-paying menial tasks shunned by locals. It is one of Southeast Asia's top labor markets, with foreigners making up some 2 million of its work force of 12 million. Hundreds of thousands more work illegally in the country.
Human Resources Minister S. Subramaniam said the government banned the intake of foreign workers in the services sector last year mainly to weed out illegal foreigners in the country. But the process is taking too long and the freeze is hurting businesses, especially restaurants that rely heavily on foreign workers, he said.
"We don't want newcomers to come until the problem of illegals is sorted out, but that sorting out process is taking too long. Industries are having a lot of issues on the ground, some are on the verge of closing," he said.
"There must be some relaxation of rules ... so now for industries that are critically affected, the government is giving approval on individual merits. Last month, the Cabinet approved the recruitment of 45,000 foreign workers" to meet demand in 13 business sectors in the service industry, he said.
The 45,000 laborers will come mainly from India following a request from ethnic Indian businessmen who initially asked for 90,000 foreign workers to fill up vacancies for restaurant workers, barbers and newspaper vendors, he added.
Local rights groups Suaram, however, said the government was not wisely utilizing existing human resources, particularly 92,900 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
"Most of the said 13 business sectors facing manpower shortage are in the small-scale business and can be filled by refugees," it said. "The ministry should give them opportunity and allow them to work instead of bringing in more foreign workers."
Subramaniam said a Cabinet committee will meet mid-March to discuss how best to tackle the country's reliance on foreign workers.
"We have told industries to make it more lucrative to attract more locals to work and at the same time, redesign their businesses so that they are less dependent on foreign workers," he said.