Malaysia government wants local workers at wholesale market, but traders say tough job, low pay await

An immigration enforcement exercise at Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur.
An immigration enforcement exercise at Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Malaysian government wants local workers to replace the hordes of foreign workers at Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur (KL Wholesale Market), but traders there say a tough job and low pay await.

Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) has issued a statement that from last Monday (May 12), traders at Malaysia's largest market won't be allowed to hire foreign workers anymore.

They risk having their licences revoked and their goods seized should they flout the new ruling, DBKL said.

The crackdown followed the discovery of Covid-19 infections among some of the foreign labour, many of whom work in Malaysia without proper documentation.

There is also rising anger about the presence of many foreign workers - 2.2 million work legally in the country and another estimated 3 million are illegal workers - when many Malaysians have lost jobs due to the movement curbs in the last two months to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

But traders at the wholesale market say while they are willing to hire Malaysians, many candidates have been found to be unsuitable.

The local candidates are either picky with the work they are required to do or question their wages.

There was a steady stream of queries by locals during the movement control order (MCO) period, but the traders said many turned down the job after they were told that they would have to carry heavy loads.

Kuala Lumpur Vegetable Wholesalers Association president Wong Keng Fatt said he needed to hire four locals to unload and carry the vegetables.

Those who were interested in the job, he said, were too old or lived too far from the wholesale market in Selayang, on the northern edge of KL.

He said there is another hurdle.


"Since the market closes sometimes for disinfection, we work about 12 days a month," he said. "Some of the workers are unwilling to work because of the pay of RM100 (S$33) per day, which comes up to RM1,200 a month."

He said it would take about six months for the situation to get back to normal, when the market would be opened again every day.

Residential areas around the wholesale market and Pusat Bandar Utara nearby came under "enhanced MCO" from April 20 to May 3 - total lockdown to allow for health workers to conduct tests on all residents and disinfection work.

Malaysian residents and about 10,000 foreign workers, who mostly worked at the wholesale market, were screened.

The market houses close to 600 traders, including those selling fruits, vegetables and seafood but only about 30 per cent of them are opened for business now.

Kuala Lumpur Fruits Wholesalers Association president NM Chin said some Malaysians were afraid to work there due to the enhanced MCO.

"Business at the market is very slow and most of the time we have to wait for customers, " he said.


Kuala Lumpur Hoi Seong Fish Wholesaler Association is urging the government to create a proper channel to legalise foreign workers at the market due to this.

Its chairman Sing Kian Hock said it was difficult for traders like him to get work permits for foreign workers as they were considered stall owners in the wholesale market while those in shoplots or factories could get the permits easily.

"However, the reliance on foreign workers is inevitable as they are more willing to work.

"We have highlighted these problems to the various departments two years ago but it fell on deaf ears, " he said.

Mr Sing said the only way to manage foreign workers was to create a system to legalise and set a limit on their numbers in the market.

"This has three benefits. It ensures foreign workers have the income to sustain themselves and prevent them from falling to social ills; the government gets to collect tax every year during their employment in the country; and they fill the gap for the need for hard labour in the market, " he added.

The traders said that although some local employees were good and loyal, 90 per cent of them did not last for a month due to the nature of the work and the high expectations.

"Ideally, there should be a coexistence of local and foreign workers in the market, " he said.