A student smiles on her first day back at high school following the easing of coronavirus restrictions in Kuala Lumpur on June 24. (Photo: AFP)
Malaysia will not allow foreign workers to take any new jobs in the country until the end of the year to help unemployed citizens find new work, the government has announced.
“We are trying to reduce [the number of] foreign workers in the workforce besides giving priority to locals to secure jobs,” Human Resources Minister M. Saravanan told a newspaper.
The move is expected to worsen the economic prospects of migrant workers from Bangladesh, Myanmar and elsewhere.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, an estimated two million foreigners worked in Malaysia, according to official figures, although observers say the actual number could be double that as many migrant workers are employed illegally.
Malaysia remains a choice destination in the region for migrant workers from poorer countries, especially predominantly Muslim nations such as Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Yet the pandemic has dealt a severe blow to Malaysia’s economy. In the first three months of the year, economic growth in the country fell by 2 percent from the previous quarter.
Analysists forecast a contraction of nearly 3 percent in GDP this year. Industrial production has contracted by 32 percent while exports have fallen by nearly 24 percent.
At the same time, unemployment stood at 5 percent in April, the worst rate in decades, and is expected to be as high as 7 percent for the rest of 2020.
Malaysia’s economic woes have left numerous newly unemployed migrant workers impecunious and with no imminent job prospects.
Desperation among migrant workers has been growing. At least eight migrant workers from Myanmar who have lost their jobs in Malaysia have committed suicide, according to news reports.
Much of Malaysia’s economy, which is one of the strongest in the region, is underpinned by migrant workers who accounted for 38 percent of the country’s labor pool in 2018, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia.
Migrant workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar are routinely employed in onerous menial jobs for low pay. Many face constant hardships and various forms of discrimination.
In recent months, animosity against migrant workers has been growing among those Malaysians who unfairly blame foreigners for the spread of Covid-19.
To date the country has had nearly 8,600 confirmed cases and 121 deaths.
A backlash on social media has especially been noticeable against stateless Rohingya asylum seekers who have fled to Malaysia in the hope of finding a new home there.
In recent weeks, Malaysian authorities have raided several migrant communities in Kuala Lumpur and detained hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers, including scores of Rohingya women and children.
Since early May, authorities have also turned back some two dozen boats carrying Rohingya asylum seekers who set sail from Bangladesh.
Malaysian authorities’ heavy-handed treatment of these stateless boatpeople, hundreds of whom have perished at sea already this year, has prompted Human Rights Watch and other rights groups to demand that Rohingya asylum seekers be allowed to enter the country.