Coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus: Some laid-off Malaysians jostle for jobs with migrant workers

Employment could be had in construction sites or palm plantations, and jobs ranged from office cleaners to restaurant cooks.
Employment could be had in construction sites or palm plantations, and jobs ranged from office cleaners to restaurant cooks.PHOTO: AFP

Former technician Muhamad Hazriq Akbar used to check electrical wiring on new project sites to ensure the safety of high-speed train operations.

Today, the 27-year-old moves hundreds of cartons of imported goods at Port Klang, Malaysia's main port.

In another part of Selangor, former oil and gas draughtsman Ismail Daud now helps his sister pack scarves and move the heavy cartons, after he was laid off amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"I'm glad my sister decided to take me on as a part-timer to help her with her online business.

"She is paying me RM20 (S$6.50) per hour, and in a week, I manage to get about RM300 to RM500. It's enough to put some food on the table and afford my daughter's milk and diapers," said the 31-year-old.

As the Covid-19 outbreak ravaged Malaysia's economy, thousands were left scrambling to get whatever jobs they could, including those that migrant workers had been doing for decades.

The Malaysian government said last Thursday that some 520,000 Malaysians lost their jobs within seven weeks of the country implementing the movement control order (MCO) on March 18, which bars people from leaving their homes and businesses from operating.

This forced the government to restart the economy under the conditional MCO, said Economic Affairs Minister Mustapa Mohamed.

"Now, Malaysia has already lost about 520,000 jobs. Based on Bank Negara's projections, we stand to lose 1.8 million jobs if we don't do anything," Datuk Seri Mustapa said in a talk show aired on TV3.

On May 1, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced that almost all Malaysian economic sectors would reopen from May 4 after the country suffered RM2.4 billion in losses daily during the MCO, with total losses currently estimated at RM63 billion.

If businesses were to remain closed for another month, the country could incur an additional RM35 billion in losses, he said.


The lack of prospects also puts pressure on the government to cut Malaysia's foreign labour so that the jobs can be passed on to locals desperate to earn a living.

Deputy Federal Territories Minister Edmund Santhara on May 4 revealed that 1,200 locals had applied to work at the Selayang wholesale market, contrary to claims that Malaysians were not interested in "3D" jobs - those considered dirty, dangerous and difficult.

The market, seen by many as filthy, employed mostly migrant workers before it was forced to close due to the MCO.

"I will take whatever job that comes my way now. At the rate that I'm going, I'm in no position to be choosy. Other than doing part-time work at the port, I'm also looking for work on construction sites near where I'm living," Mr Hazriq told The Straits Times.

He is renting a small apartment in Selangor's Shah Alam.

During the MCO, hundreds of refugees and migrant workers were also detained by the authorities, mainly for illegally staying in the country. An official said the workers were mostly from South Asia, and that more raids would be conducted in the coming days.

During Malaysia's economic boom years between 1988 and 1997, foreigners flocked to the country to look for blue-collar jobs that were spurned by Malaysians.

Employment could be had on construction sites or palm plantations, and jobs ranged from office cleaners to restaurant cooks.

South-east Asia's third-biggest economy is host to 2.2 million documented foreign workers, and another 3.3 million illegal workers and their families.

Since the outbreak, there has been growing hostility against this group, with some Malaysians blaming low-salaried migrant workers for spreading the virus. Others say they should be kicked out so that locals can have the jobs back.


With the authorities conducting massive swoops on enhanced MCO areas and detaining hundreds of migrant workers, the question remains whether there will still be a place for them in the country post-pandemic.

"I came here 15 years ago to seek a better life and things were great until the virus broke out.

"My friends and I were the first to be laid off without any compensation despite being very good at what we do. We now have nowhere to go, no money and no food to eat," said Bangladeshi Ahmed Kawser, a 47-year-old construction worker in Kuala Lumpur. "We shudder to think of what the future holds for us in this country, especially with the growing hostility."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2020, with the headline 'Some laid-off Malaysians jostle for jobs with migrant workers'. Subscribe