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Asia-Pacific Population Journal

For over two decades, the Asia-Pacific Population Journal (APPJ) has been taking the pulse of population and social issues unfolding in the region. Published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), APPJ brings out high quality, evidence-based and forward-looking articles relevant for population policies and programmes in Asia and the Pacific. Prominent population experts, award-winning demographers, as well as lesser known researchers have been contributing articles, documenting over the years the evolution of thinking in this important sphere.

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Bangladeshi migrant workers in Malaysia’s construction sector

The 1980s and 1990s were characterized by an absorption of foreign labour into the Malaysian economy that was unprecedented in terms of numbers and rapidity. From approximately 500,000 foreign workers in 1984 (Ministry of Human Resources, 1991) their numbers shot up beyond 1.2 million in 1991 (Pillai, 1992) and 2.4 million in early 1998 (Utusan Malaysia, 1998). Labour voids manifested particularly during the high-growth period of 1988-1997 were the main inducing agent. Construction was among the sectors which came to rely heavily on foreign workers owing to a confluence of factors: Malaysian youth’s aversion to low-status work, an expanding manufacturing sector which was offering much better employment conditions, labour attrition, widening opportunities for tertiary education, a lower birth rate and the emigration of Malaysian workers to high-wage countries such as Japan and Singapore (Abdul-Aziz, 1995). The Construction Workers Union estimated that in 1987 about 60 per cent of the 300,000-350,000 workers in the industry were immigrants (Gill, 1988). Pillai (1992) estimated that, by 1991, 70 per cent of the construction workforce comprised immigrants, while the author’s own study (Abdul-Aziz, 1995) conducted in 1995 found that, in the major cities of Georgetown, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, foreign workers made up in excess of 80 per cent of site operatives. During this time, the nationality of site operatives, especially for the undocumented, diversified in tandem with the augmentation of the labour movement. As for legal entry, at the time of writing, Malaysia had granted to five countries, namely Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand, permission to export their surplus construction labour to Malaysia.

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