Confusion reigned in Malaysia yesterday over its foreign labour policy, just a day after the country signed an initial agreement in Dhaka to bring blue-collar Bangladeshi workers into Malaysia over three years.
Facing flak from many Malaysians, Human Resources Minister Richard Riot yesterday morning told a news conference that initial reports of bringing 1.5 million Bangladeshis into the country were untrue.
He said the figure instead consisted of Bangladeshis who had registered to work abroad and they would not necessarily come to Malaysia.
The workers from the South Asian country would be brought into Malaysia only if needed.
Hours later, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi added to the confusion.
Total Malaysian workforce
Registered foreign workers
Illegal foreign workers
He said Malaysia was suspending the intake of all foreign workers, and called on employers to hire locals.
"The government has made the decision to delay the intake of foreign workers from all source countries including Bangladesh. We urge all employers to recruit local workers as employees," Datuk Seri Zahid said in Kuching, Sarawak.
The freeze is temporary, he said. "The government will postpone the plan until we are satisfied and identify the exact need of the various industries in the country," said Mr Zahid, according to the New Straits Times.
Since last June, Mr Zahid has been a strong proponent of bringing in the 1.5 million Bangladesh workers, saying this was because Malaysians shunned the so-called "3D" - dirty, difficult and dangerous - jobs.
Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Nurul Islam of Bangladesh and Malay- sia's Datuk Seri Riot on Thursday signed a memorandum of understanding to bring in the blue-collar workers.
Many Malaysians were surprised by the government's earlier insistence on bringing in an average of 500,000 workers from Bangladesh a year for three years, at a time when the country's economy is slowing,
Malaysia's economy grew by 5 per cent last year, down from 6 per cent in 2014, with expectations of slower growth this year as the country's two key exports of petroleum and palm oil have been hit by lower commodity prices.
Malaysia has 2.1 million legal foreign workers, the government said. Another 1.7 million foreigners are estimated to be working illegally in Malaysia as of December last year.
In 2014, foreign workers' remittances amounted to RM32.1 billion (S$10.7 billion), according to the Ministry of Finance.
While most of the imported labourers do menial work shunned in Malaysia, South-east Asia's third- biggest economy, their large presence at the same time causes unease among local residents.
Trade unions blame them for depressing local wages, while others accuse them of creating social problems.
Deputy police chief Noor Rashid Ibrahim yesterday said the influx of migrant workers would lead to a higher crime rate, though he acknowledged that Malaysians form the bulk of criminals.