I REFER to Marisa Demori’s letter “Foreign workers valued” (The Star, Feb 5) which in a nutshell argued that foreign workers were preferred by employers because they were more hardworking, had a more positive work attitude and were more productive. Locals were deemed not interested in manual jobs because such jobs were low-paying and had no status.
Such observations are to be expected because they are intuitive and based on a layman’s arguments. However, things may not be as obvious as they seem. I shall explain below why many of these observations are flawed or based on arguments that have no theoretical underpinning.
Firstly, employers’ preference for foreign workers is not because these workers are more hardworking or have a more positive work attitude. They prefer foreign workers, particularly the illegal ones, because they can be more easily exploited and abused.
With many of them having no valid papers and legal status, they have no choice but to follow the dictates of their employers, no matter how unreasonable or exploitative the situation may be.
Secondly, foreign workers are not more hardworking; they are more desperate. Having come from poorer countries and having spent a large sum of money to get here, they have no choice but to work doubly hard.
May I ask whether a person having to work desperately to survive be deemed as hardworking? If that is the case, should we then subject Malaysian workers to the same desperation so that they too will be more hardworking? I think this is nonsense; workers are humans, they are not machines.
Thirdly, foreign workers are cheaper but they are not necessarily more productive. Productivity is based on innovation, resourcefulness and management ingenuity. Precisely because we have too many foreign workers, productivity growth is almost at a standstill.
One example is the construction industry which has remained rudimentary, dirty and dangerous. Another is hawkering – the ways we prepare, handle and sell food – which has remained unhygienic, disorderly, and unproductive.
This brings to my fourth point which is to explain why the locals have shied away from manual jobs. Many such jobs are unproductive because there is hardly any innovation taking place. Worse still, the presence of foreign workers swarming these jobs further depresses wages and hence retards innovation.
I believe if the entry of foreign workers is more orderly and controlled, wage levels will increase accordingly which in turn will spur innovation, mechanisation and productivity growth.
With higher wages and more attractive working conditions, I am sure more locals will be attracted to those jobs which they previously shunned.
To conclude, please let me reiterate that as a nation, we have been too lenient in allowing the entry of unskilled foreign workers and in the process lost valuable time and opportunity to mechanise and to resort to greater use of technology in our work processes.
Importing cheap labour from the poorer countries, whether through legal or other channels, is often the main cause of distortion between the relative price of capital and labour.
Indeed, the import of foreign workers is economically justifiable only if these workers are paid similar wages and enjoy similar working conditions as the locals. Otherwise, there can be no certainty whether the demand for foreign workers is due to genuine shortage or due to employers paying lower wages.