Do migrant workers in Malaysia live a sustainable life? How can the government improve social, economic and health conditions for them? Lai Wan Teng is doing her PhD at the Center for Development Research (ZEF), the University of Bonn and seeks to answer these questions. She is supported by a  BMZ bursary via DAAD (RLC- Right Livelihood College).

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Young Researchers Lai Wan Teng

Portrait: Lai Wan Teng

We come. We work. We survive. The livelihoods and survival strategies of migrant workers in Penang.

Ongoing dissertation

Department of Political and Cultural Change, Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn


Bonn Sustainability Portal: What is your research all about?

Lai Wan-Teng: My research is about the livelihood, survival strategies and risk of low skilled migrant workers who work in the Penang State, Malaysia. My interest and passion are motivated by the  intention to fill the gap that insufficient  scientific research is conducted to investigate in-depth  understanding of the struggles and bitter-sweet experiences of regular and irregular migrant workers in Malaysia. However, the research is designed as a case study, with a focus on  the micro-level, the migrants themselves.

What has been the most surprising/ most innovative outcome?

Under the present governance system, the in-flow of low-skilled regular/ documented migrant workers is governed strictly by the Malaysian authority. Briefly, they are only allowed to work in six identified sectors (i.e manufacturing, plantation, agriculture, construction, services and domestic workers). Moreover, the central government has ultimate control on the selection of nationals for workers in all six sectors.

However, the preliminary analysis of findings shows that the official statistic of migrants working in Malaysia, failed to capture and explain the lived realities and practices of migrants who have more than one  job, to survive or to better their lives. Secondly, the empirical data reveals that they are strong survivals in contradiction to their powerless position in the foreign society.  Thirdly, they are highly organised in building inter or intra social networks.

In how far will your findings impact on the development of a sustainable future for migrant workers?

Low-skilled and unskilled economic migrant workers are generally seen as a problem to the host society mainly attributed by their low education and skill. However, I argue that they serve as the foundation of 3-D jobs (Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult) in any host society. They are indebted to the outsourcing agents, relative or friends to secure livelihoods in foreign land. In Malaysia, the key problems lie on the facts that there is inadequate protective framework for migrant workers; migrant workers’ issues are not on the political agenda; and, the negative stereotypes and lack of empathy by citizens to address the issues.

My research findings can contribute to advocate for the Penang stakeholders to carry the much needed sensitization programme on (legal literacy, health-related issues etc) for migrant workers; in addition, to create a coalition with interest group to mobilise the Penang society on the understanding of migrants’ situation. The two-pronged approach help to sustain a healthy development agenda of which migrant workers’ rights are checked and protected, and the awareness of civil society on migrant issues will keep the policy maker and government to pay attention to migrants plights in the country. My last words, sustainable development remains as a buzz word and meaningless if we intentionally ignore or disregard the contribution of the low and unskilled migrant workers.

Which practical use does your work have?

I strongly believe doing research demands good soft skills in doing field work. The strength in my research is the trust or bonding with selective migrants/ informants. I gained insightful observations through my roles as a local, researcher, friend and sister, in our interaction and my involvement in their social events. The practical use of my research findings could be as follows:  Firstly, the information can and ought to be shared with local NGOs (Non-governmental Organisation) to advocate for the improvement of the migrant workers’ situation. Secondly, it is the baseline information for engagement with government officers in finding ways-out to solve the migrants’ issues. Thirdly, the study will be contributing to the scientific community in relation to contextualizing contemporary migrant workers in Malaysia.

Lai Wan Teng_Foto Kollektion
©Lai Wan Teng

Which topic/subject would require more research to be done?

In the Malaysia context, to conduct research on migrants who work in the entertainment sector is very interesting and challenging. Nevertheless, it is an important research that needs to be conducted in the future.

What is your personal recommendation for sustainable living?

For me,  me, it is as simple as practicing the ‘Empty Plate’ principle – take only what you can consume and finish everything on your plate. I believe that if all human beings were conscious in  making their daily choices , there would be no food wasted, no more trees being cut for producing papers and so on and so forth. Besides, I also think that as  young people, we should always care for others, especially for people who are outside of the system, who face discrimination and unjust treatment, regardless of their nationality and skin color.

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