EVER walked into a grocery store or a food stall and got greeted by a foreign worker, and then only to be met by a blank stare when you requested for something?
Language barrier is just one of the many gripes of consumers against businesses, especially small establishments, that employ foreign workers.
For these small businesses, hiring foreign labour is not a question of choice. According to many employers in this segment, locals are simply not interested in such low-end jobs.
Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners Association president Datuk R. Ramalingam Pillai calls this segment of employment the “3D” category.
“Locals consider it dirty, demeaning and dangerous,” he says in jest.
Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Shamsuddin Bardan says many local talents just aren't interested to work in small establishments, namely SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises).
“The major reason many SMEs hire foreign workers is that they have no choice. Being small, they can't attract locals to work for them.
“Locals prefer to work in big organisations because they are career-driven. Foreign workers, especially within the low-income bracket and those that work for small businesses are not. They work here for a few years and return to their home country.”
He adds that previously, most SMEs were family-run businesses but today, the newer generation is not interested in following the footsteps of their forefathers as they prefer to seek opportunities elsewhere.
The Malaysian Indian Hairdressing Saloon Owners Association president K. Kaviarasan says that being a barber, especially of the “old school” kind, is considered “not glamorous” by locals.
“We have to hire foreign workers because nobody (locals) wants the job. I myself am a third-generation barber but my children are not interested in carrying on the legacy,” he tells StarBizWeek.
Kaviarasan says many Malaysians are put off by the long working hours.
“Being a barber means having to work from 9am to 9pm and most Malaysians don't like working long hours. They would rather be the boss of the business and have more flexible working hours.”
Kaviarasan believes that the salary (of barbers) is not the main factor why Malaysians are put off with this line of work.
“The salary of a barber is not great but it's alright. The pay ranges from RM1,300 to RM1,500, depending on how long they've been working.”
Shamsuddin says it is a misconception that foreign workers are paid lower salaries than locals within the same job scope.
“The public perception that foreign labour is cheap is untrue. For employers to hire foreign labour, they must go through an agent and the agency's fee is high. It ranges between RM4,000 and RM5,000 per worker, depending on the situation.
“For those that require three or four foreign workers, the cost is even higher.”
Shamsuddin adds that employers are required by law to pay their foreign worker the same salary as they would a local employee. He says a foreign worker could file a complaint with the labour department if they are underpaid.
SMI Association of Malaysia national president Chua Tiam Wee says SMEs in the country are facing a shortage of local employees for these low-end jobs.
“We can't find locals to man a kitchen in a small restaurant, a factory or a retail shop because they don't like the heat or prefer to work in an air-conditioned environment.
Chua adds that SMEs prefer to hire foreign workers because of the high level of absenteeism among locals.
“Locals take leave during holidays or festive seasons and may take medical leave for prolonged periods, but this may not be the case for foreign employees.
“Foreign workers are also willing to work overtime just to earn extra money,” he says.
Sunildeep Singh, who owns and runs the Kedai Serba Aneka Simpang Tiga grocery store in Batu Caves, Selayang, says it is easier to attract foreign labour to work at a sundry shop.
“I also believe that they are more hardworking than locals. Foreign workers are willing to work all day, even on weekends and public holidays.”
“I'm sure that our own locals can do an even better job, but they expect high pay for very little work.”
Sunil runs the shop with his wife and is assisted by a single foreign worker from India.
He says hiring foreign talent is the “norm” these days.
“Foreign talents are not difficult to get. They're abundant. You can spot them in every corner.”
Speaking from experience, Sunil says the only negative issue about hiring a foreign workers is that they may not be very trustworthy, especially with money.
“It's hard to trust them with your cash. You need to keep your eyes on them at all times,” he says, adding that his former (foreign) employee was caught stealing red-handed.
“However, my new worker seems trustworthy,” he adds.
One of the most common problems with hiring foreign workers is that they cannot communicate in either Bahasa Melayu or English. Shamsuddin says this can cause frustration to customers and deter them from frequenting the premises in future.
“In a lot of instances, the foreign worker is left on their own to man the premises while the proprietor is not around. Locals will end up leaving when they find that the person at the store can't communicate well with them.”
Muslim Wholesalers and Retailers Association executive secretary Kamal Musthaffa believes that language issues will not be a problem if the foreign worker does not deal with the customer directly.
“If they are not working at the front end, then it's not an issue. Foreign workers (that have problem communicating) should be designated at the back of the shop where they don't deal with the customers. They could work on just arranging or packaging of the goods.”
Shamsuddin believes that in the worst-case scenario, the country's brand-image can be affected.
“When tourists come to Malaysia, they are served by foreign workers and this would not look good for the image of our country. We need to look critically into these kinds of businesses. It should be manned by our own people and reflect our culture.”
Kaviarasan concurs that language is a common problem when hiring foreign workers, noting that it takes between one year and two years for them to be able to start conversing with locals properly.
“But they can be trained. It's not an issue.”
Shamsuddin says small businesses should endeavour to train their foreign workers and ultimately, improve their brand-image.
“There are a lot of small businesses that are operating outside the law. It is doubtful whether some of them even have proper insurance or subscribe to Socso.
“By upgrading themselves and improving their brand-image, there is no reason why they cannot hire locals.”
Shamsuddin says the local authority can also step in and improve the working conditions of small establishments that employed foreign workers.
“Many of the businesses in Petaling Street or Chow Kit are operated by foreigners. If we could may be have a building to house these businesses, it would provide a more appropriate avenue to work.
“If this happened, they (the businesses) won't face the hassle of having to push their carts and facing storage problems or being harassed by the authorities.”
Shamsuddin says the Government is trying to reduce the number of foreign workers coming into the country and has proposed to increase the levy on foreigner workers by 400% by 2015.
“But we (MEF) have objected to this. We believe not all the employers should be penalised by the levy.
“Some businesses hire foreigners as a matter of choice and intentionally don't hire locals, while others do it out of necessity (they have no choice but to hire foreigners).”