‘Luck’ and Labour Migration in Malaysia

Plastic buckets full of colourful paints with paint rollers balanced on the top.


Professor Kaur research examines issues of labour history – including child labour – gender studies, labour and forced migration, refugees, and human trafficking.

Researcher: Emeritus Professor Amarjit Kaur
UNE Business School

‘Time and time again it has been reiterated that birth and luck play a major role in our lives. Some people trust in fate or karma to explain why some people/countries have better opportunities than others. We are also aware that a country’s natural resources, population and good government play a vital role in the equation. Thus, like Australia, Malaya/Malaysia too has been labelled as a “lucky” country’.

These words from Amarjit Kaur, Emeritus Professor in the UNE Business School, point to some key connections that Australia has to our Asian region. Like Australia, modern Malaysia is very much the product of British colonial rule from the mid-19th century until 1963. Opened-up to international trade, foreign capital inflows, and labour immigration, mostly from India, China, and Indonesia, Malaysia’s economic success has been largely due to a migrant workforce employed under exploitative labour conditions. ‘Migrant workers were mostly single men, and few brought their spouses. Some women migrants were employed on “easier” tasks and also earned lower wages compared to the men’.

Professor Kaur, whose research examines issues of labour history – including child labour – gender studies, labour and forced migration, refugees, and human trafficking, notes how the colonial trends have continued in the period post-independence. ‘Petroleum and liquefied natural gas became Malaysia’s major exports and Western companies largely controlled these commodities’ says Professor Kaur. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Malaysia transitioned to an industrialising economy, and subsequently recruited ‘cheaper’ women workers for low-skilled factory work. Where commodities accounted for about 32% of GDP in the 1970s, by 1990 about 27% of Malaysian GDP came from the labour-intensive export-oriented manufacturing sector. Western multinationals prefer to hire less-skilled women workers for the low-waged manufacturing jobs.

Malaysia continues to ride on its ‘luck’, and has been slow in adopting technological innovations. Although the Malaysian government subsequently expelled Indian and Chinese migrants who had not taken up citizenship, the state is once again dependent on low-skilled migrant workers from a large number of countries. Unlike the European Union, Malaysia has acknowledged its demand for caregivers, but it is migrant women caregivers who currently facilitate Malaysian women’s greater participation in the workforce. In Malaysia, says Professor Kaur,‘everything has changed and nothing has changed’.

As a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Amarjit Kaur continues to pursue her research interests with the same energy today as when she first entered academia with a PhD from Columbia University. The Australian Research Council, AusAid, and the Wellcome Trust, as well as the Toyota Foundation, Japan Foundation, the Fulbright/American Council of Learned Societies, and the British Council have all supported her research on Southeast Asia (and the ASEAN organisation). She remains a key focal-point for the cross-disciplinary research work at UNE that examines some of these most pressing matters of our times.

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