It’s no secret that Malaysia plays host to a lot of foreign labour; a lot of cheap foreign labour. Among the criticisms of this happenstance is that it takes away jobs from locals, reduces the wages locals can command, and stunts productivity growth.
Underlying these concerns is a false view of the economy, that labour competition between foreigners and locals are a zero-sum game. The first concern isn’t true – given our ridiculously low unemployment rate, there’s not a lot of evidence that foreigners have taken jobs away from locals. Culling foreign labour from Malaysia would only reduce output, and remove industries that would only exist (or exist as cheaply) from the availability of that foreign labour.
The second concern has a bit more validity, and the third even more still. But most studies on this issue find evidence that the net impact of foreign labour on an economy is positive. Here’s the latest (abstract):
Are Immigrants a Shot in the Arm for the Local Economy?
Gihoon Hong, John McLaren
Most research on the effects of immigration focuses on the effects of immigrants as adding to the supply of labor. By contrast, this paper studies the effects of immigrants on local labor demand, due to the increase in consumer demand for local services created by immigrants. This effect can attenuate downward pressure from immigrants on non-immigrants' wages, and also benefit non-immigrants by increasing the variety of local services available. For this reason, immigrants can raise native workers' real wages, and each immigrant could create more than one job. Using US Census data from 1980 to 2000, we find considerable evidence for these effects: Each immigrant creates 1.2 local jobs for local workers, most of them going to native workers, and 62% of these jobs are in non-traded services. Immigrants appear to raise local non-tradables sector wages and to attract native-born workers from elsewhere in the country. Overall, it appears that local workers benefit from the arrival of more immigrants.
As I said once before, the best way to get rid of the cheap foreign labour problem is to accelerate the economic development of Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia.
Hong, Gihoon and John McLaren, "Are Immigrants a Shot in the Arm for the Local Economy?", NBER Working Paper No. 21123, April 2015