Offer migrant workers a better deal

Josh Hong

It is high time the government and society realised that we must pay migrant workers’ wages that will enable them to live a decent life, instead of keeping them at the lower rungs of society. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, November 8, 2021.

RECENTLY, the Taiwanese government announced that the minimum wage in the country would be raised from NT$24,000 (RM3,600) a month to NT$25,250, starting January 2022.

It would make it more than three times higher than Malaysia’s minimum wage, which remains pathetically at RM1,200.

While Human Resources Minister M. Saravanan has promised a review of the minimum wage and hinted that there would be “good news”, the increase will likely not be sufficient to offset the effects of the rapidly rising costs of living, especially in a post-pandemic environment.

Thus, low-income households will continue to stretch their money just to stay afloat.

Taiwan’s monthly basic wage, however, does not cover domestic workers (better known as social welfare workers or caregivers locally) as the latter are beyond the scope of the Labour Standards Act.

Given that as many as 250,000 migrant domestic workers now work in Taiwan, of whom 200,000 are Indonesians while the rest are Vietnamese and Filipinos, to exclude such a sizeable group of workers – who are key to sustaining the Taiwanese economy – from the basic salary enjoyed by workers in other sectors is an injustice indeed, and all the more so when one considers the fact that the deductible health insurance premiums increase along with the minimum wage raise. 

Furthermore, the stipulated monthly minimum income of domestic workers, at NT$17,000, has not been adjusted since 2015 while the costs of living have continued to rise, and the new wage gap of NT$8,250 between migrant industrial workers and migrant domestic workers is staggering, which might widen further if nothing is done to reserve the situation in the years to come.

Same as their Malaysian counterparts, Taiwanese employers often cite domestic workers’ flexibility of work time as well as the provision of meals and accommodation as reasons in resisting any pay rise in this regard.

This is only true to some extent, but persistently denying domestic workers a higher salary for over five years is not only ridiculous, but also shameful and unreasonable given the soaring commodity prices globally.

The stagnant basic wage is, therefore, akin to asking migrant workers to not spend any money in Taiwan or not send remittances to their families back home at all. 

What does all this have to do with Malaysia? A great deal.

As the minimum wage is raised annually for migrant industrial workers, Taiwan has emerged as a favourite destination for workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Even a monthly income of RM2,500 for domestic workers is attractive enough to Indonesians as compared to the average RM1,200 or so that Malaysian employers pay them.

It is also no secret that wages of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia often fall below the minimum wage, and the higher income that one could make in countries such as Singapore and Taiwan would mean an Indonesian with better skills and educational backgrounds may not be keen to work for Malaysian employers. 

And Malaysia is not helped by the endless cases of abuse against migrant workers, which has severely damaged the country’s international reputation.

So, why not choose a destination that offers better salaries since one has to endure hardships as a migrant worker after all?

Not to mention that Taiwan is much more progressive in protecting the rights and interests of migrant workers as compared to Malaysia. 

For instance, while migrant workers are not allowed to form a labour union in Taiwan (as in Malaysia), they are allowed to organise themselves as civil society groups, to be placed under the jurisdictions of the Ministry of Interior and the department of social affairs in every local government (unlike Malaysia).

As such, the number of civil organisations representing migrant workers legally has increased significantly and expanded their activities in recent years, making great contributions to balancing the lives of migrant workers in Taiwan.

In Malaysia, migrant workers are not allowed to even celebrate Labour Day, and may even find themselves on the wrong side of the law should they organise a public event.

As Malaysia struggles to move up the value chain, many are increasingly concerned about the country being stuck in the middle-income trap, unable to sustain high rates of growth to reach the so-called high-income status.

But we must also consider that the huge number of migrant workers who contribute vastly to our economic growth still earn meagre wages. It is not just a Malaysian challenge, but a human rights issue.

Having relied heavily on migrant workers for more than 30 years, Malaysia’s economic development has reached a bottleneck, and the era of continuing to count on low-wage migrant workers will sooner or later come to pass. It is high time the government and society realised that we must pay migrant workers’ wages that will enable them to live a decent life, instead of keeping them at the lower rungs of society.

In the longer term, we need to move on from the 1980s-1990s mindset of attracting labour-intensive investments into the country, and carry out reform to move our economy away from labour-intensive industries, failing which Malaysia will only continue to make international headlines with news about all forms of exploitation of migrant workers. This probably is not a future that we want to see. – November 8, 2021.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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