by Simone Galimberti

The fact that current Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Zahid Hamidi was acquitted last September in a scandal involving, among several other accusations, the illegal “milking” of money out of Nepali Workers during their visa process should not distract policymakers in Malaysia from a serious rethinking of their foreign worker management.

Probably there is no better time to start reconsidering the foreign labour practices than now, with a new government elected to power and with a national job market more and more in need of foreign workers.

The recent official visits by Malaysia’s Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, to the capitals of three key foreign workers’ countries of origin, Indonesia, Nepal and Bangladesh, should produce a new impetus to bring about a holistic reform of the management, including recruitment, of foreign workers destined to Malaysia.

The main reason for this official tour was the fact that Putrajaya has recently come up with a quicker and more agile recruitment system for foreign workers while at the same time has introduced another moratorium that allows private employers to hire thousands of foreign workers currently already in the country but illegally

While there is urgency on the part of the Malaysian government to find quick fixes to a complex industry that also involves delicate bilateral relationships with governments of several nations of the Asia Pacific, at the same time, deeper reform of the whole labour system should be undertaken

According to Malaysia’s Human Resources Minister V Sivakumar, Malaysia is rushing to bring about 500,000 foreign workers into the country by the end of 2023, numbers that are staggering to manage.

For example, one of the strongest requests by the Nepali Government, also in the light of the scandals that had hit Deputy Prime Minister Zahid for the ways Nepali workers were charged multiple times for their biometric examination and visa processing, is the introduction of a “zero-cost” migration policy.

In simple terms, it means that a national desiring to go to work in Malaysia should not have to pay any type of recruiting and processing fee.

After all, this is the official policy of the Government of Nepal, a policy that, unfortunately, from the perspective of the migrants, has no teeth and remains mostly unimplemented.

Malaysia should be overtaken by its pressing labour needs and should undertake a rigorous process of reform of its entire recruitment process. It can do this by looking at the experiences of several other countries, including Korea and Israel.

Both are nations that, in relation to Malaysia, have a more recent history of foreign labour relationships with Nepal.

Because of that, they were able to learn some important lessons from the ways foreign labour migration can be managed efficiently and transparently.

Both Korea and Israel are running government-to-government foreign migration systems in the sense that it is totally centralized and do away with any type of middlemen upon which, in several cases, the entire recruitment process relies.

I am referring to hundreds, if not thousands, of so-called manpower agencies that fill the street of Kathmandu and Dhaka and Jakarta.

Creating a system that basically bypasses them, both the governments of Korea and Israel have a very strong partnership with their official bilateral counterpart in Nepal, making it the latter a key player of the entire recruitment process.

In practice, we are talking about an effective and sustainable way that turns the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security of Nepal into a co-owner of the selection process and, therefore, a key player in ensuring a smooth selection of candidates.

For example, E.P.S. Korea is a designed “special purpose vehicle” to manage the entire recruitment process of those aspiring to work in Korea, including the handling of the mandatory language exam and the flights for those selected as well.

Not too dissimilarly, Israel also greatly counts on the Department of Foreign Employment, the agency within the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security that also co-manages E.P.S. Korea for the entire selection process.

While analyzing such systems, we need to take into account an important caveat: the fact that Korea “only” recruits 40.000 Nepali workers while Israel’s needs are even more limited to specific sectors like caregivers.

In the specific case of Israel, there have been intense negotiations between the two governments and only in 2021 new working procedures were established, a development that opened the door to 500 Nepalis workers to enter the Israeli job market.

The models offered by both Korea and Israel should probably be seen as the golden benchmarks of foreign labour management.

Enforcing such approaches could only happen with a very strong determination and political will by the Government of Malaysia, in addition to long negotiations with the migrant-sending countries, to be able to implement these models.

Is there any other alternative?

Can Malaysia set a trajectory to review its current practices also in lieu of the recent scandals and find a proper model to ensure better management of precious foreign manpower?

The news that coming 2025, all immigration-related affairs will be “repatriated” to the Immigration Department of Malaysia is promising as it will do away with the outsourcing that can attract corruption and mismanagement.

Though a sign in the right direction, the announcement still does not go far enough to include the process of recruitment of foreign workers.

Any meaningful change in this system is going to get pushback from the so-called recruiters in the country of origin, which have established a thriving business thanks to their broad responsibilities and powers in almost all aspects of the recruitment process.

Moreover, any implementation of the “zero-cost” policy is also going to affect them tremendously. For them, the only alternative to offset the consequences of the “zero cost” policy is a clear mechanism through which hiring companies in Malaysia can compensate the manpower agencies for the costs they incurred while selecting the workers.

Interestingly, one of the leading IT companies in Malaysia, Weston Technology, signed an agreement last July with two recruiting agencies in Nepal to send, in the first phase, 450 workers at zero cost for them.

This model, which in practice bypasses the government’s systems, could also be a way forward for Malaysia, but the magnitude of the needs in the labour market in Malaysia warrants a system change type of development.

Another approach could come from Qatar, one of the major sources of foreign labour for Nepali workers.

For years, like Malaysia, Qatar has extensively relied on private manpower companies for the entire recruitment process.

The migrant workers, as we saw with the scandals that had involved Deputy Prime Minister Zahid, were those at the receiving hands with high fees and zero transparency.

What Qatar did, in a very pragmatic fashion, was to set up centralized visa centres in some of the countries that are key for the provision of foreign workers.

The so-called Qatar Visa Centers are now operating in Nepal, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines and offer a much more transparent system in terms of the modality in which visas are being issued.

In all these countries, Qatar still relies on manpower agencies for the selection process, a situation that compels thousands and thousands of workers to pay high sums, mostly after contracting debts, to cover their recruitment fees.

There is no doubt that in the process of reform of the foreign labour system, intermediate steps might be taken, including provisions to improve the living condition of the country.

In this regard, some raids by the authorities in Malaysia showed the still abysmal conditions many foreign workers are forced to endure once they reach their working locations.

The fact that Minister V. Sivakumar himself was part of the raids could possibly reinforce the willingness of the government to solve for good the way foreign labour is managed.

It also proves that the only right way forward for Malaysia is a comprehensive and ambitious reform of the entire system, including the way the private sector operates.

The author writes about social issues, development and international relations in the Asia Pacific.

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