No one can tell for sure how many migrant workers we actually have in this country. Even the authorities and individual officials offer their own variable numbers, not so much because they have something to hide from the public but simply no one knows exactly how many of them are here.

According to the human resources ministry, there are some 2.1 million registered migrant workers — what we call legal foreign workers — in Malaysia. However, the number of overstaying illegal foreigners is even larger, probably around three million.

Malaysian Employers Federation’s estimate is even more alarming, putting the total number of legal and illegal foreign workers at six million!

Low Kian Chuan, secretary-general of the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry Malaysia (ACCCIM) seems to echo MEF’s hypothesis, arguing that the ratio of legal to illegal foreign workers in the country now stands at 1:2, meaning two illegal migrant workers for every legally registered worker here. Given the fact that we now have 2.1 million registered foreign workers, the number of undocumented ones could easily hit four million.

Imagine six million foreign workers walking the streets of a developing country of 31.7 million. How serious could the social problem get?

Experts warn that the issue of foreign workers in the country is akin to a time bomb awaiting to be detonated. Problems that come with these people include IS threats, human trafficking, environmental degradation, contagious diseases and moral depravation, among others, which collectively pose a severe challenge to the country’s administrators. Unfortunately it is next to impossible for Malaysians to go without these people.

Many of our economic sectors are excessively dependent on foreign workers. When the government froze the importation of new foreign workers, some local furniture factories had to wind up owing to labor crunch. And when a domestic help runs away, the career lady employer may have to take leave from her job to do the house chores and take care of the little ones at home.

The raids carried out by the immigration department against unregistered foreign workers have left many construction sites shorthanded and plantations virtually unattended to. And the list can go on and on.

It has been stipulated under the 11th Malaysian Plan that the ratio of foreigners in the country’s labor market must not exceed 15% or 2.1 million. But thanks to the presence of a multitude of illegal foreign workers, the ratio would have reached a jaw-dropping 43%, far beyond what the labor market actually requires.

These foreign workers have hailed from a number of neighboring countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and China, hired mainly in the construction, manufacturing, agricultural and services sectors or as domestic helps.

The influx of large numbers of foreigners into the country has seriously impacted the local demographic structure. Together, the registered and unregistered foreign workers have formed the third largest community in this country at around 19% of the total population. With only 2.22 million people, the Indian community has long been displaced from the top three to become the fourth largest community here.

On February 18 this year, human resources minister Richard Riot Jaem traveled all the way to Dhaka to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Bangladeshi government for an additional 1.5 million workers over the next three years. This decision has since met with powerful objection from the Malaysian public.

MEF executive director Shamsuddin Bardan was of the opinion that the government should refrain from bringing in more foreign workers given the current sluggish economy. Moreover, the influx of 1.5 million Bangladeshis will send the strength of foreign workforce to a staggering 7.5 million, far outstripping the needs of the local market.

If this were to materialize, their sheer number should overtake that of Chinese Malaysians, currently the second largest ethnic group in the country. And Malaysians are beginning to worry about the arrival of such an apocalyptic moment.

More recently, the government has also announced that the private sector can hire security personnel from two other yet-to-be-decided countries, in addition to Nepal.

I recently passed by the vastly popular KLCC Park in downtown Kuala Lumpur, and all that came into my sight were lots and lots of foreign workers. I thought I was in Dhaka, which I once visited.

In the past the city used to be completely hushed during the festive seasons when most of its residents were back in their respective hometowns. No more! Our streets are now filled to the brim with migrant workers.

Some public transport means such as buses have become a necessity for foreign workers traveling from a place to another. There was this time when out of no choice I had to look to the extremely inconvenient public bus service in town, the only such occasion in many years. The bus was fully packed, and the driver aside, I was shocked to find myself the only other Malaysian onboard. To be very honest, I was a little restless.

Why have so many foreigners flocked to Malaysia for a living and why do they later decide not to leave this country?

Malaysia is endowed with a wealth of natural resources and no major natural disasters. Well, there was a minor tremor in East Malaysia not long ago, but volcanoes and typhoons are total strangers to us.

Malaysia is a land of plenty. Getting the stomach filled is never an issue so long as one is willing to work. Another pull factor is that Islam is the country’s official religion and Muslims constitute the dominant community here, making the country a veritable paradise for people like Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Cambodians and Burmese Rohingyas.

As if that is not enough, Malaysian employers’ dependence on foreign workers has reached a stage a total wean from foreign helps is squarely impossible. The reason is beyond question: foreign workers are inexpensive, hardworking and will not resist 3D (Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult) jobs which locals instantly shun.

To the employers, Malaysians will only take jobs in a comfortable working environment, no exposure to harsh elements, stench, dust or overtime. As a result, the local construction, agricultural, services and manufacturing industries have been invariably anchored by foreigners.

As time goes by, even the hawkers are now hiring foreigners who after some time will take over the kitchen as well. Many local delicacies don’t taste the same any more. After picking up some basic culinary skills, these foreigners will then set up their own stalls. Behind Berjaya Times Square in the city’s Golden Triangle, sundry shops run by foreigners are now vying for a piece of the grocery market vis-√†-vis local businesses.

Additionally, some of those coming here to become domestic helps have found new prospects in the city’s many hair salons or as part-time maids, earning several times more. Others who came as construction workers now become self-employed peddlers, hawking cakes and drinks from construction site to construction site on their motorbikes.

Some Indonesians even bring over their families here after settling down while others find their better halves here and decide to make Malaysia their new home.

Many good-looking Bangladeshi men, in the meantime, marry local women and are subsequently granted resident status. It is therefore easy to understand why the number of legal and illegal foreign workers just keeps going up.

We cannot deny the positive contributions of these workers to the country’s economy, but the question is, the unpredictable government policies have made it very difficult for employers to map out their long-term hiring policies. This, coupled with lax enforcement and the absence of an effective mechanism to manage migrant workers, has resulted in millions of foreigners outstaying their employment contracts.

To better control the number of foreign workers in the country, the immigration department will from next month take stern actions against employers hiring unregistered foreign workers, seizing or freezing their bank accounts and assets under the Immigration Act 1959.

Under the new measure, employers found hiring or sheltering overstayers or holders of counterfeit visas and passports will have their bank accounts and assets seized or frozen.

To be completely self-reliant is a tall tale. Good luck, folks!