FRUSTRATED that he could not save anything, Amirul left his job as a business development executive at an oil-and-gas company in Kuala Lumpur last year to search for work illegally in the United Kingdom.
Almost a year on, the 27-year-old said he has no regrets taking on a job as a factory operator where he stays at a rent-free workers’ hostel and gets paid £60 (RM330) a day and still gets to send home at least RM1,000 a month to his mother.
“In Malaysia, my salary was around RM3,000, and every day, I spent RM10 to RM20 for food. In the UK, raw food is cheap,” said the graduate with a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) qualification.
Amirul, who did not want to give his full name, said he would have been lucky to be able to save 30% of his wages every month back in KL, whereas he now saves up 50%-80% of his salary in the UK.
Amirul is working illegally as he only has a social visit visa, but said the savings he enjoys in the UK make it worth bearing the risk of being deported.
In 2013, the Malaysian High Commissioner in the UK Zakaria Sulong was reported as saying that an estimated 20,000 Malaysians had violated their social visit passes to work and live in the UK.
Zakaria said the overstaying problem has grown critical, as among all the countries with visa-free status into the UK, Malaysia ranked the third highest when it came to violation of social visit passes.
A similar wave of Malaysians leaving the country for work abroad occurred in the 1980s, when the tin market crashed. Many jobless Malaysians left once-booming cities like Ipoh to countries like Taiwan, New York and Japan to work, both legally and illegally.
More than 30 years later, the crash in oil prices and increasingly high cost of living are once again pushing many young Malaysians to risk the comforts of their office jobs for blue-collar jobs abroad.
Last year, global recruitment firm Hays International published a study showing that one-third of the world’s workforce lost their jobs from 2015 because of the economic slowdown triggered by the drop in price of oil.
A survey conducted among 28,000 workers in 28 countries also found that 93% of employers admitted to having to lay off a portion of their staff.
Tough road to travel
Amirul originally wanted to work as a telemarketer after a friend promised him the job in the UK. However, when he arrived there, he said he was duped by his friend and left jobless with only £400 to survive on.
“For the first three days, I lived in a friend’s house. Then because I felt bad, and didn’t want to spend my money on a hotel, I was homeless for a week,” he said.
“After that, I met Malaysian students who agreed to let me stay at their place for two weeks. I finally found a job at a clothing factory.”
However, he soon left the job after he claimed he was exploited by his boss and co-workers. Amirul said he was paid £4 an hour and had to work six days a week in 12-hour shifts. He also had to pay rent for a room he shared with a fellow Malaysian.
He finally landed a job at the factory he now works in, and doesn’t see himself returning to Malaysia any time soon unless he is caught by immigration officers for violating his six-month social visit pass.
Amirul said the only downside to his career choice is that he stands to be deported if he is ever caught by the authorities, but it’s a risk he’s happy to take for the sake of his future.
“To save myself from their enforcement agents, I don’t carry my passport around with me, I keep it in my room. If they come to the factory, I’ll just say I was there to meet a friend.
“We need to be streetwise. But thankfully, the whole time I’ve been there, there has never been an operation.”
He’s certainly not the only one willing to bear the risk of being arrested and deported from the UK.
Aina Amir, 30, was a professional designer in Kuala Lumpur but was soon drowning in debts and financial commitments. She then decided to take up a job in the UK as a dishwasher and cleaner in a restaurant earning between £5 and £10 an hour.
She said she lives in fear of being detained, saying that those caught flouting their social passes will be barred from entering the UK for 10 years, have all 10 of their finger prints as well as mugshots taken before being handcuffed and taken away like criminals.
“I’m thankful because I’ve only witnessed and heard of these stories from others, as I’ve so far not been detected.”
Aina said working in such conditions made her aware of the similarities she and many others in her generation share with the migrant workers in Malaysia.
“When we’re in a foreign land, we do not socialise much so have more time to work. So, we are able to save and are more diligent in saving money.
“It’s the same for the foreign workers in our country. And when you’ve gone through this experience in a foreign land, we will understand the situation of the immigrants in our country.”
For many Malaysians, their hopes of working in plush offices or pursuing a corporate career has had to be replaced with working as Uber or Grabcar drivers, or even as maids and house cleaners, as wages for most fresh graduates remain too low to survive in the city.
According to payscale.com, the average rate of salary increase in Malaysia in 2015 was only 3.5%, whereas Indonesia rated 9.8%, Singapore 12% and Thailand 5.8%.
The difficulty in making her monthly wages stretch enough to cover her expenses was what spurred 29-year-old Afifah Ariffin (not her real name) to give up her bakery business in Malaysia to become a babysitter abroad.
Afifah, who requested not to reveal the country she was heading to as she plans to be working on a tourist visa, said she would be earning close to RM3,000 a month as a babysitter, while she is currently earning RM2,100 a month here.
“My job there will be only to take care of the baby,” she told The Malaysian Insight.
The diploma holder in culinary arts said business at her bakery was slow and that the opportunity to work in a different environment and expose herself to more opportunities was what compelled her to take the risk of deportation.
Afifah said she was nervous about flouting immigration laws, but said a supportive family as well as friends abroad in similar positions emboldened her to try it out.
“I’m going because I see a job opportunity. The whole package is still much better than my current situation.”