Are we coming to the end of the Indian barbershop era?

  • 01 Jul 2019

At a time where expensive slick backs and undercuts at "hipster" hair saloons are the craze among men, many still prefer going to the traditional Indian barber shop, where friendly chats, neck massages and the scent of Old Spice powder are part of the package for a friction of the price. 

However, your friendly Indian barber may go extinct unless the government allows the hiring of foreign workers to keep the business afloat. 

The government last allowed the hiring of 1,000 foreigners in 2011, but many of them have since run away from work, or returned to their countries.

The worker shortage has caused many local barbershop owners to shutter for good, says Magendran Vellasamy, the president of the Malaysian Indian Hair Dressing Saloon Owners Association (Mindas).

In the last few years, Magendran himself has had to close down four out of the 10 shops he used to own in the Klang Valley.

"We are not asking for financial aid from the government. All we are asking for is the permission to hire 30,000 foreigners, nationwide, to keep our businesses afloat," he told Astro Ulagam when met recently. 

Running the business does not come cheap. He says employing an average of two workers, along with premise rentals and utility bills, costs between RM5,000 and RM6,000 a month. 

According to him, the worker shortage predicament is not by faced by the saloon industry alone, but other Indian-owned businesses as well, such as textiles, jewellery and scrap metal. 

Representatives from some 22 business associations hit by the frozen intake problem recently accompanied Magendran to submit a memorandum detailing their concerns and their requests to the Home Ministry. 

A ministry representative accepted the memorandum and has promised to call the group for a discussion on the matter.

Magendran rubbished the notion that the government's freezing of foreign workers' intake could be to stem the outflow of money from the country, saying foreigners are still being brought in large numbers for the hospitality, spa and beauty, and retail industries. 

"Why doesn't the government crack down on the mass hiring of foreign workers by these giant entities? Why go after small business owners like us?" he asked. 

Locals are choosy

Asked why the industry has to rely on foreigners when they can choose locals, Magendran said the latter are not as receptive to the idea of getting into the industry. 

"We offer basic salaries of up to RM2,500, which is way above the government's minimum salary (RM1,100) requirements, and pay benefits like Socso and EPF, but still, not many locals come for the job due to the long hours they have to put up with (which can go up to 12 hours a day). 

"Those who work hard can also earn commission on top of their salaries," he said. 

There were many locals who took advantage of the trust given, he lamented. 

"They will come in and start work as they wish and often call in sick, only for us to find out that they were freelancing at other shops during their so-called 'sick leave', to earn commission, especially during festive seasons."

Employing foreigners, especially workers from India, did carry its own set of challenges, but they are something the business owners can handle, Magendran said. 

There have been cases where Indian workers have run away after stealing money from their employers, but in most cases, they have been tracked down.

Foreign workers are also more "dedicated" to their jobs as they stay in shoplots housing the saloons after work hours, and hardly have commitments like family, that they can use a reason to skive off during working hours, he pointed out. 

According to Magendran, the previous administration greenlit the hiring of 30,000 foreign workers during the tail end of BN rule, under Najib Abdul Razak, but the plan was put on hold as soon as Pakatan Harapan took over, and has been on ice since. 

"The current government extols the virtue of entrepreneurship, but what about existing entrepreneurs?

"Does it not realize that there won't be businesspeople, if there is no business?"

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