Malaysia Reopens its Doors for Migrant Workers Amid Labor Shortage

Noah Lee and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia Reopens its Doors for Migrant Workers Amid Labor Shortage Migrant laborers work at a vegetable farm in Cameron Highlands in Pahang state, Malaysia, July 7, 2021.

Malaysia will allow foreign workers into the country again by lifting a 16-month ban due to the coronavirus, a move prompted by severe labor shortages, particularly in the plantation sector, the prime minister said Friday.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob also announced that the country would allow in some fully vaccinated foreign tourists starting in mid-November, but only on Langkawi Island to begin with, in a boost for the Southeast Asian nation’s badly hit tourism industry.

“The Special Committee on Pandemic Management today has agreed on the Standard Operating Procedures set for the entry of foreign workers to Malaysia [e]specially to fill the needs of the plantation sector, as tabled by the Human Resources Ministry,” Ismail Sabri said in a statement.

“How many workers will be allowed in and from when, are issues that will be sorted out soon.”

Some 32,000 foreign workers for the plantation sector may arrive in stages, starting soon, the minister in-charge of plantations and industries had said earlier this month.

Malaysia banned the hiring of foreign workers in June 2020 to prioritize jobs for locals in an economy wrecked by the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to labor shortages in a country that relies heavily on migrant workers in the construction, manufacturing and plantations sectors.

Before the pandemic hit, there were between 1.7 and 2 million registered foreign workers in Malaysia.

Now, according to data from the National Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia, plantations require 70,000 foreign workers, the construction sector needs 200,000, the furniture industry is short 30,000, and the manufacturing and the rubber-glove industries need 50,000.

Documented foreigners make up 80 percent to 85 percent of the plantation workforce – or 265,000 people – according to data from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board.

Nageeb Wahab, the CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association Chief, said he breathed a sigh of relief at the PM’s announcement.

“Given the chance, all of the [plantation] companies would want to seek the optimum quota of foreign workers. I would believe that number would be in excess of 75,000 workers,” Wahab told BenarNews.

Foreign workers would need to follow strict health protocols to enter Malaysia, Ismail Sabri said.

“They need to be fully vaccinated with vaccines approved by the World Health Organization and submit a copy of their vaccination certificate prior to departure. They are also required to get tested for COVID-19 before traveling to Malaysia,” he said.

Upon arrival, the workers will then have to be in quarantine at centers approved by the government, for seven days.

“During the quarantine, the workers will need to undergo COVID-19 tests on the second and the fifth day,” the PM said.

Foreign tourists

Ismail Sabri had some good news for the tourism industry as well.

Fully vaccinated tourists from select countries will be able to travel to Langkawi Island under a three-month pilot program starting on Nov. 15, he said.

The prime minister said this program is aimed at “high-yield foreign tourists” from countries that are on a list approved by Malaysian authorities.

“This pilot project will be carried out for three months to allow the Health Ministry and National Security Council to evaluate its viability, before it can be widened to other tourism islands and spots in the country,” Ismail Sabri said.

Foreign tourists would be required to get tested for COVID-19 within 72 hours before departure, and do another test upon arrival. They would need to quarantine only if the arrival test showed they had COVID-19.

Additionally, tourists are required to stay at their destination spot for at least three days, use the service of any tourism agency approved by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, and have insurance coverage of a minimum of U.S. $80,000.

One economist said that if people didn’t follow health protocols properly, there could be a rise in COVID-19 infections after the tourism program begins. But at the same time, he said, the tourism industry badly needs revival.

“It will be good for the tourism sector. But if COVID-19 figures rise again, just like is happening in the U.K. now, then we will have more headaches in the future,” Nazari Ismail, an economist with the University of Malaya, told BenarNews.

“But I think there is not much choice. People working in the tourism sector need to earn a living to feed their families.”

Malaysia has vaccinated 94.3 percent of adults, or around 72 percent of its population. And in the last two weeks, new infections have stayed below 10,000 a day.

The government should institute some tighter health protocols so that the gains from the high number of inoculations are not erased, Nazari said.


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