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Foreign workers and productivity in an emerging economy: The case of Malaysia

Review of Development Economics

Published online on


Many developed and developing countries are experiencing large and growing levels of international migration of labor. However, the large majority of research on the economic impact of inflows of migrant workers on host economies focuses exclusively on developed countries. In this paper, we address this gap in the literature by examining migrant‐induced productivity effects in the emerging economy of Malaysia. Importantly, the Malaysian case is typical for many Asian economies where, next to high skilled foreign workers, large numbers of migrants consist of low skilled workers that are employed in host economies on a temporary basis. Using detailed industry level data for the period 2005 to 2009, we find that both high skilled and low skilled foreign workers generate positive productivity effects in Malaysian manufacturing industries. Furthermore, our results identify a strong presence of industry heterogeneity, as the effects of foreign workers, in general, and low skilled foreign workers, in particular, are pronounced in labor and assembly intensive modern industries with a strong export focus. This indicates the importance of foreign workers for the contemporary international competitiveness of the Malaysian manufacturing sector. As such, our findings provide important new input to the debate on the role of low skilled foreign workers in processes of development of the Malaysian economy.