Putrajaya's claim that Malaysians are not willing to work in dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs, also known as 3D jobs, may be true not because locals are fussy, but because of poor working conditions and lack of better technology.
Investments in technology and improving working conditions are key to filling vacancies in 3D jobs, two economists say, adding that getting locals to fill these positions should not be tackled solely from a wage perspective.
Putrajaya, employers and locals are locked in an unending public debate over the country’s policy on foreign workers with the government and businesses saying that locals do not want to work 3D jobs.
Yet locals interviewed have said they are willing to do so and are holding such jobs across the causeway in Singapore where the pay is better.
This masks the reality that other countries have used automation and improvements in the work environment, while Malaysian employers remain reluctant to do so. This has kept wages depressed and in turn pushed locals away from these jobs.
It also fuels the addiction to cheap foreign labour, which has become a perennial hot button issue.
Low take-up for tech incentives
For instance, oil palm plantations – among the biggest users of foreign labour – could adopt programmable sprinkler and harvesting systems to slash the amount of manual labour, said economist professor Rajah Rasiah.
"An automated sprinkler system is not complicated as it uses ROM chips that have been around for decades.
"Banana plantations also use machines to harvest their produce, these can all be adapted for use in plantations. So the question is, why are our firms not doing so?" said Rajah, of Universiti Malaya’s Economics and Administration Faculty.
Putrajaya has expressed the desire to push for more industrial automation in labour intensive industries to reduce foreign worker numbers. The government in the 2015 Budget announced tax incentives for companies that adopted automated machines and processes.
The problem is the low take-up of these incentives, with the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) saying applying for and obtaining approval is difficult.
"Small and medium industries say there’s just too much paperwork involved to apply. You have to write papers to get approval," said MEF executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan.
As for why Malaysians are willing to work 3D jobs outside Malaysia, another UM economist, Dr Lee Hwok Aun, said working conditions in Singapore for such jobs could be better, thus making them more appealing.
He cautioned against seeing the issue from a purely monetary point view as other countries allowed their foreign workers the right to unionise, among others.
Occupations such as janitors, port workers and lorry drivers could form unions, thus giving these workers power to negotiate with employers for better benefits and equipment, said Lee.
In contrast, Malaysian companies have been accused by unions of hiring labour suppliers who move their teams of foreign workers around every few months.
Since these workers are transitory and ultimately tied to the supplier, they cannot negotiate for better benefits.
Still, the pay in foreign currency is a draw for Malaysians doing manual jobs in Singapore.
In interviews with The Malaysian Insider, Malaysians have said they are willing to work in the island republic because of the good income, which can reach up to S$1,800 a month.
But Lee said comparisons based on wages alone would be inaccurate, as other factors had to be considered.
"Comparing wages between Singapore and Malaysia would be inaccurate since the cost of living is different in each country and those earning Singaporean dollars may be spending them in Malaysia," said Lee, who is with UM’s Development Studies Department.
Rajah said although technology and work conditions could make 3D jobs better and more attractive to locals, there would still be a need for positions that only foreigners were willing to take.
"But the number of foreigners that we need will be substantially reduced from the total that we have now."
There are an estimated two million undocumented foreign workers in Malaysia, although some groups that deal with migrant workers' rights believe the number is higher. – March 14, 2016.