KUALA LUMPUR: Raids on construction sites have become a daily exercise since Malaysia began its nationwide crackdown on illegal foreign workers on Jul 1. In the first 10 days of the operation, more than 3,300 illegal migrants have been arrested, including more than 60 employers.
It was not without warning. Immigration authorities had given employers nearly five months to register illegal migrant workers.
Director General of the Immigration Department Mustafar Ali was targeting to issue up to 600,000 Enforcement Cards (E-Cards) to undocumented migrant workers. But less than 160,000 came forth to register when the deadline expired on Jun 30.
The Malaysian official is adamant he will not extend the deadline. He said employers were given enough time and that the crackdown will continue until the last undocumented worker is purged.
"I want to stress that the operation will go on," said Mustafar. "Surrender now, otherwise those who are arrested during raids will face the full force of the law."
The immigration chief said illegal migrant workers, once arrested, would be blacklisted and then deported, while employers who hired unregistered foreign workers could be fined, jailed and even whipped under the law.
EMPLOYERS CRY FOUL
However, employers, especially those from small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs), are crying foul. Many say they were unclear about the registration process, while some also blamed the agents they had engaged to help them register their illegal migrant workers.
"A lot of SMEs paid the agents but were never able to get E-Cards or the rehiring done,” said SME Malaysia national president Kang Hua Keong. “A lot of agents promised, even blacklisted ones, that they can get it done but actually it is not true. Agents just want to make the money.''
As the crackdown continues, various industries are feeling the heat - in particular the construction and services sectors.
Site contractors say they now do not have enough workers to do the job. They are also expecting foreign workers - those with proper documentation - to demand higher wages going forward.
"Some of our workers have not been turning up for work; maybe some of them went back to their country or hiding somewhere," said Ken Lee, a site supervisor.
“We will see the effect in another month or in two, three weeks. We are expecting them to demand for more pay due to the labour shortage. Not only the construction field, all other industries are facing the same problem as well."
Malaysia traditionally relies heavily on foreign labour to fill jobs in plantation and construction that are deemed difficult, dirty and dangerous and shunned by locals.
But foreign workers are increasingly fronting retail and other service sectors which they are not supposed to under the immigration law, with some restaurants and eateries in and around Kuala Lumpur practically run by foreigners from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesia.
Employers say they prefer hiring foreign workers whose pay is lower and they don't have the difficulty of retaining them.
Industry players estimate there are more than 3 million foreign workers in the country, half of whom are illegal. And many fear the current crackdown on undocumented migrant workers will lead to a dire labour shortage, which will have an adverse impact on Malaysia's economic growth.