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Life experiences and cultural adaptation among migrant workers in Malaysia

Abstract

This study examines the state of migrants’ cultural adaptation in Malaysia, and how such an adaptation can help build our understanding of migrants’ life and employment experiences in the country. In doing so, this study has adopted a quantitative approach, with a completed survey towards 410 migrant respondents, living and working temporarily in Selangor, Malaysia. A multiple regression analysis finds that the three most significant predictors contributing to the respondents’ cultural adaptation are “positive experiences” (β = .677, p = .000), “closeness” (β = − .107, p = .008), and “social relationships” (β = .095, p = .032). While “positive experiences” and “social relationships” influence the migrant workers’ adaptation positively, the “closeness” predictor on the contrary (negative). Another predictor, “disconnection”, is found to be not statistically significant. The one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) reveals significant differences in the respondents’ cultural adaptation based on such demographic characteristics as age, gender, level of education, nationality, length of employment, and sector of employment. For instance, female migrants are strongly associated with a higher level of “positive experiences” [F(1, 408) = 6.321, p = .013] and “social relationships” [F(1, 408) = 5.634, p = .018], while male migrants tend to rely on cultural proximity (i.e., “closeness”) [F(1, 408) = 6.828, p = .009]. The discussion section highlights attributes such as the gender factor in cultural adaptation, preservation of cultural identities, and creation of migrants’ symbolic places to understand how cultural adaptation intersects with the migrant workers’ daily lives and experiences. This study concludes that as Malaysia’s economy continues to rely on migrant workers, it needs to better understand the workers’ cultural adaptation and their far-reaching impact on their life experiences and employment conditions in the country.

Introduction

The scope and forms of manifestation of international migration have changed significantly (Cormos, 2022), and these changes have brought about social transformation, including cultural adaptation, assimilation, and integration, at the individual and collective levels. Scholarly discourse around international mobility continues to grow. While some studies focus on explaining why migration occurs (Kassim & Mat Zin, 2011) and delve into the integration dilemma facing both migrant communities and host societies (Dahinden, 2016), there is growing scholarly discourse focusing on the lack of mechanisms to protect migrant workers, which eventually contributes to the exploitation and criminalization of migrant communities (Chan et al., 2022; Rother, 2017). Other studies have focused on the migrants' settlement, displacement, and the lived experiences of migrants in urban settings globally, and the link to super-diversity (Vertovec, 2007; Schiller & Caglar 2009, 2016).

As international migration is dynamic, it must be continuously appraised, both in academic and policy discourse. Malaysia is one of the top destination countries for labour migration in Southeast Asia. In 2019, Malaysia together with Brunei Darussalam, Singapore and Thailand hosted about 9.1 million migrant workers, and about 7.1 million of them originated from countries in the Southeast Asia region. Malaysia was listed as the second highest in the region, after Thailand, with a total migrant worker stock of 3.4 million workers (and 3.6 million workers in Thailand), according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA, 2019). Significantly, both Thailand and Malaysia were considered to have the 17th and 18th largest stock of international migrants in the world (UNDESA, 2019; International Labour Organization, 2022). In Malaysia specifically, migrant workers are broadly categorized into two groups: regular and irregular migrant workers. Regular migrant workers are referred to as workers who possess valid passports and working passes (locally termed as the visitor pass for temporary employment), employed in six economic sectors permissible by the Government of Malaysia (i.e., manufacturing, construction, plantation, agriculture, services and domestic work). Meanwhile, irregular workers refer to those without such valid documents, and they can be found working within the permissible sectors and beyond (Wahab, 2023).

In tandem with the growing number of international migrant workers in Malaysia, previous studies indicate a growing focus on their life experiences and employment conditions: some highlight the migrants’ vulnerability to labour trafficking (Ajis et al., 2015; Juliawan, 2018), while others argue that the existing legislation is inadequate to protect their rights and welfare (Devadason & Meng, 2014; Lim, 2018; International Labour Organization, 2018). Other studies explain why female migrants in Malaysia are more vulnerable to exploitation than male migrants (Lasimbang et al., 2016). When migrant workers face labour abuses or exploitation, they lack the ability to raise their complaints and grievances for remediation (Mak et al., 2021). A recent study commissioned by the International Organization for Migration (IOM, 2023) found that pockets of regular migrant workers became irregular due to exploitative employment conditions. The study highlights that unpaid wages, excessive work hours, retention of identity documents, and poor living conditions are among the factors contributing to workers running away from the workplace and becoming irregular migrant workers.

While this body of literature provides useful contexts and discourse on the everyday life of migrants in Malaysia, the question regarding why migrant workers continue to be the subject of exploitation is lacking. In doing so, this study focuses on examining factors contributing to cultural adaptation among migrant workers, with the overarching assumption that cultural adaptation shapes and influences migrants’ life experiences and employment conditions in Malaysia. For clarity, this study defines culture as the set of shared attitudes, values, social forms, and customary beliefs, in which a particular group of community learns and transmits to future generations (see Rahman et al., 2019). In many existing pieces of literature, cultural adaptation is referred to as a process of adapting and assimilating into a new culture over time in order to carry out the person’s daily life (Sarker, 2016). The cultural adaptation process of individuals, familial and communities exist in the host society determines the quality of life among the migrant population (Castro & Murray, 2010). Given the complex process of adaptation among the migrant population in Malaysia, this study focuses specifically on four broad aspects of cultural adaptation, namely, migrants’ positive experiences, sense of disconnection and closeness, and social relationships (further see Table 1). These aspects relate to their everyday life experiences and employment conditions, including their ability to speak the local language, their ability to interact with the locals, and their ability to adapt to the host society’s identity and lifestyle.

Table 1 Summary of section two of the survey questionnaire

Why focus on migrant workers' lives and experiences in Malaysia?

For the past few decades, Malaysia has successfully diversified its economy from one based primarily on agriculture to include the manufacturing and service sectors, transforming Malaysia into a major exporter of electrical appliances and components, chemical, rubber, and palm oil-related products (Wahab & Hamidi, 2022). This economic diversification created jobs (World Bank, 2022; Wahab & Hamidi, 2022), while attracting more foreign investment (Solomon et al., 2015). Despite such economic development however some sectors such as agriculture, plantation and construction are still heavily dependent on manual, unskilled and low-paid workers (Hamzah et al., 2020; Arisman & Jaya, 2020; Shahiri et al., 2021). The local workforce is uninterested and unwilling to work jobs they consider “dirty, demeaning and dangerous” (Katmon et al., 2020; Mohd Fateh et al., 2022). Existing studies also point out that most Malaysian employers prefer to hire a migrant workforce for such reasons as the migrant workers’ willingness to work long hours. (Ismail, 2015; Wahab & Hamidi, 2022).

Given its high level of dependency on a migrant workforce, Malaysia has become a major destination country for migrant workers from Asia. It has been estimated that between 2 million and 5.5 million documented and undocumented migrant workers live in Malaysia, working primarily in six economic sectors—manufacturing, construction, agriculture, plantation, services and domestic work (Lee & Khor Yu, 2018; Wahab & Hamidi, 2022). The majority of these migrant workers originate from such countries as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, and Myanmar (Ministry of Human Resources, 2019). Further complicating the migrant population demography in Malaysia are the nearly 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers from more than 50 countries, seeking temporary shelter and protection (Wahab & Hamidi, 2022). The case of migrants’ life in Malaysia provides a unique lens to understand and reflect on the dynamics of cultural adaptation and integration, and their connection with the growing literature concerning employment precariousness in the country.

Existing literature intersecting migrants’ life, integration and adaptation

Following the current literature on the international mobility of migrant workers, with the central debates on employment precariousness, nation-building, and integration and adaptation, this section outlines relevant themes worth further discussion. We begin by reviewing literature which focuses on the employment precariousness of migrant workers. Existing studies such as Kaur (2010), Mei Wei and Yazdanifard (2015), and Wahab (2019, 2023) have documented the range of labour rights exploitations faced by migrant workers in the country. These exploitations are further compounded by the lack of state protection and remedies (Wahab, 2020; Wahab & Hamidi, 2022). A study conducted by Sunam (2022) claimed that current Malaysia’s regulatory framework, poor commercial workplace and socio-economic infrastructures (see also Lindquist, 2017) have collectively caused precarious employment conditions facing many migrant workers, in particular the Nepali workers in the country. Other scholars have documented the persistent stereotypes among the host society against the migrant population, perceiving them as disposable workers (Ormond & Nah, 2020), disease vectors and financial burdens (Juliawan, 2018; Ormond & Nah, 2020; Sok, 2019; Wahab & Hamidi, 2022).

It is important to stress that the migrant workers’ life experiences and employment conditions discussed in the existing literature are not unique only to Malaysia. They are also found in other countries, including those located in the global north. For instance, a study released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2013) found that some European countries tend to be more xenophobic against migrant worker communities during times of economic decline and high levels of unemployment. Similarly, O’Connell and McGinnity (2008) found that in Ireland, migrant workers are three times more likely to experience discrimination during employment recruitment and at the workplace than the local populace. In countries such as the United Kingdom and France, the lack of social interaction and bridging between the migrant worker population and the host society contribute to isolation and lack of access to mediation and remediations, when labour exploitation and abuses occur at the workplace (Ager & Strang, 2004).

Another significant body of literature pertains to the role of transnational and social networks of migrant populations in destination countries. The existing literature points out that migrants typically engage in various forms of non-conventional transnational political participation connecting them to their country of origin through such venues as membership in a charity organisation, boycott or strikes, artistic performances, and remittance of funds (Sabucedo & Arce, 1991; Pérez-Armendáriz & Crow, 2010; Bermudez, 2016; Lara-Guerrero & Rojon, 2022). These networks connect the migrants to each other, enabling them to relive their memories of home and support their family members back home. In destination countries, migrants often attend weekend gatherings, seasonal celebrations, gastronomy fiestas and art festivals. These activities further strengthen the migrant workers’ transnational networks, solidarity, and social identity in foreign lands.

International mobility among migrants is also about attachment, belonging and settling. Existing studies suggest that social and cultural adaptation among migrant populations in destination countries interfaces with the complexities of the migration process, beginning with securing a decent job, and a place to live, getting to know the neighbourhood, adhering to new rules and regulations, and surviving in a new terrain. Questions about the sense of belonging, social connections, and attachment among migrant workers in foreign lands continue to be raised and debated (Sadiq, 2009; Talib et al., 2012; Grzymała-Kazłowska, 2013; Ryan & Mulholland, 2015; Grzymala-Kazlowska & Ryan, 2022). In many destination countries, migrants continue to negotiate the temporal, spatial, structural, and relational processes to create a sense of belonging and new attachment (Grzymala-Kazlowska & Ryan, 2022).

The integration and adaptation process in destination countries is complex as they also interplay with other aspects such as the places and environments where migrant workers live. Another important stream of literature explains how “places” influence migrant workers’ settlement and their connection to work demands, access to public services and transportation, particularly in cities (see Schiller & Çağlar, 2009). As influxes of migrants concentrate in cities, they have become the subject of police harassment, prejudice and negative sentiments (Nazri et al., 2022). Despite such challenges, existing literature points out that migrants continue to contribute and redefine cities with new services created to cater for their needs such as schools for their children, health screening initiatives, and income-generating opportunities for the host society through a range of domestic economic activities (Schiller & Çağlar, 2009).

Another significant body of literature concerns the concept of super-diversity, i.e., explaining the different social and legal status of migrant populations and their concomitant conditions, divergent labour market, discrete configurations of gender and age, and patterns of spatial distribution in cities (Vertovec, 2007, 2019). Debates concerning super-diversity are increasingly popular in such urban contexts as Amsterdam, Brussels, and London where ethnic minority groups, primarily migrant populations, are arguably replacing or have already replaced the host society and ethnic majority groups (Crul et al., 2013; Foner et al., 2019; Geldof, 2015; Crul, 2016; Geerts et al., 2018). Geerts et al. (2018) further relate the concept of super-diversity with the debates around intersectionality, stemming from Anglo-American Black feminist thought (Collins, 1990; Crenshaw, 1989, 1991). Further, Foner et al., (2019) observe that super-diversity has such unfulfilled promises as integrating the dimension of power into analyses and exploring the intersections of various forms of diversity.

The past few decades also saw a growing literature highlighting challenges and barriers facing female migrants, particularly among Asian women migrating to European countries. For instance, Asian female workers are seen to be culturally unfit to work in the United Kingdom, especially in institutions dominated by white males (see Davidson & Davidson, 1997; Rana et al., 1998; Kamenou, 2013; Tariq & Syed, 2018). Female workers in the UK are often excluded from informal workplace networks and access to training programmes, which are also instruments to their career development (Tomlinson et al., 2013). In Malaysia, existing literature only explains how and why female migrant workers are more vulnerable to exploitation compared to male migrants (see Lasimbang et al., 2016), but there is no significant research unpacking comprehensive employment conditions and cultural adaptation among female migrants.

To conclude, while there have been growing pieces of literature discussing various manifestations of employment precariousness, migration infrastructures (e.g., regulatory framework, recruitment facilities and commercial workplaces), gender aspect, and migrants’ status and life experiences in Malaysia (and elsewhere), very little efforts have been made to relate it with cultural adaptation. This is despite the fact that the process of cultural adaptation can serve as both cause and consequence of better (or worse) employment conditions and life experiences of migrant workers. Worth reiterating, however, this study only focuses on examining factors contributing to cultural adaptation from four broad aspects namely, positive experiences, disconnection, closeness and social relationships.

Method and materials

This study has adopted a quantitative approach by distributing survey questionnaires to examine factors associated with migrant workers’ cultural adaptation in Malaysia. Before conducting the survey, we underwent a research ethics review process under the auspices of the Research Ethics Committee of the National University of Malaysia (UKM) between March and August 2022. A written approval was sought from the Committee on 15 August 2022 with a Reference Number: UKM PPI/111/8/JEP-2022/497. Written informed consent was obtained from all respondents before the survey was conducted.

The survey was conducted covering migrant respondents working and living in Bandar Baru Bangi, i.e., a township situated in one of the districts in the state of Selangor known as Hulu Langat. Bandar Baru Bangi is also known to be the epicentre of migrant communities, especially migrant workers who are working and living in the area. For the record, Selangor is the most populated geographical state by migrant population in Malaysia, i.e., 30% of the total migrant population in the country (Low, 2020). The sample size was determined in accordance with Dillman’s (2000) formula, which suggested approximately 384 respondents for populations larger than 1,000,000 with a 5% sampling error and a confidence interval of 95%. An additional 15% of questionnaires were distributed to cover the incomplete responses. To this end, the survey administered a total of 429 questionnaires, but there were only 410 participants who completed the survey. Below is Dillman's (2000) formula for sample calculation.

$$N_{s} = \frac{{\left( {N_{p} } \right)\left( {\text{p}} \right)\left( {1 - {\text{p}}} \right)}}{{(N_{p} - 1)\left( \frac{B}{C} \right)^{2} + \left( p \right)\left( {1 - p} \right)}}$$

where Ns = completed sample size needed, Np = size of population, p = proportion expected to answer a certain way (50% or 0.5 is the most conservative), B = acceptable level of sampling error (0.05 = 5%), C = Z statistic associated with confidence interval (1.960 = 95% confidence level).

The survey questionnaire was adapted from the United Kingdom (UK) feasibility study on migrants (UK Home Office, 2021), focusing on various aspects of integration. These aspects of integration were then reviewed and validated by two appointed experts in the field. The questionnaire was divided into two main sections. The first section includes questions about the respondents’ demographic characteristics such as age, gender, marital status, length of employment, sector of employment, level of education, and status of employment. The second section consists of 28 questions, encompassing attributes pertaining to cultural adaptation and associated factors (6 items), positive experiences (8 items), disconnection (6 items), social relationships (5 items) and closeness (3 items). All responses were measured by the 5-point Likert scale i.e., 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = slightly agree, 4 = agree, and 5 = strongly agree). Table 1 below summarizes key aspects of the questionnaire.

A pilot study was conducted from 20 August 2022 to 30 August 2022, utilising a convenience sample among 30 migrant workers to check the reliability of the questionnaire. The reliability of the questionnaire was tested using Cronbach’s alpha. All constructs obtained satisfactory levels of reliability, allowing the actual data collection to proceed. Field data collection was then commenced from 1 September 2022 to 30 November 2022, using a combination of convenience and snowball sampling techniques. A non-probability recruitment strategy was employed in two prongs. The first prong involved establishing contacts and getting permission from supervisors and employers’ representatives at the workplace (e.g., construction sites and manufacturing factories). The second prong involved making contacts with migrant community leaders in selected areas, who then recommended other migrants to be surveyed on a voluntary basis. This sampling strategy was deemed the most appropriate, safe (i.e., given the power dynamics) and transparent to ensure voluntary participation and authenticity of responses. The selection of the sample was done based on a number of inclusion criteria. These include their (1) status as a migrant worker (not refugee or asylum seeker); (2) age, that is 18 years and above; and (3) status of nationality i.e., Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesia only. The questionnaires were administered by ten enumerators who were previously trained by the research team prior to being involved in actual data collection.

The data were processed and analysed using the Statistical Packages of Social Sciences (SPSS) version 26. No significant outliers were found. Two types of analysis were conducted: descriptive and inferential statistical analysis. A descriptive statistics analysis was conducted to describe the respondents’ demographic characteristics. The inferential statistics analysis includes (1) multiple regression analysis to determine the factors contributing to the migrant workers’ cultural adaptation in Malaysia, and (2) an Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) to identify the relationships between the respondents’ demographic characteristics and the factors contributing to their cultural adaptation.

Results

Respondents’ demographic characteristics

Of the total 410 respondents who completed the survey, the majority of them were male (n = 336) (82%), while only 18% were female participants (n = 74). In terms of education, nearly half the respondents reported that their highest level of education is secondary school (48.3%), followed by primary school (40.0%), and diploma (8.5%). Despite working as low-wage and temporary contract workers, some respondents (3.2%) reported having a bachelor’s degree, indicating a mismatch between their level of education and the type of employment they were performing in Malaysia. Nearly half the respondents (49.8%) were aged between 18 and 30 years old, 45.9% were aged between 31 and 50 and a small proportion (3.7%) were aged 51 years and above. The survey also found that three respondents (0.7%) were below 18 years old, which contravenes existing Malaysian government regulations governing the hiring of migrant workers (see Ministry of Home Affairs, n.d.). The distribution of the respondents’ nationalities was relatively equal, that is, the respondents are from four countries, Myanmar (n = 108, 26.3%), Bangladesh (n = 107, 26.1%), Nepal (n = 101, 24.6%), and Indonesia (n = 94, 24.9%). The overall respondent demographic characteristics are presented in Table 2 below.

Table 2 Respondent demographic characteristics

Factors contributing to migrant worker’s cultural adaptation

A multiple regression analysis was run to identify the factors, negative or positive, contributing to the respondents’ cultural adaptation in Malaysia. The multiple regression analysis, with four predictors (positive experiences, disconnection, social relationships, and closeness) and cultural adaptation as the dependent variable, suggests a significant result with R2 = 0.480, F (4, 405) = 93.32 p < 0.001. The analysis revealed positive experiences (β = 0.677, p = 0.000) as the most significant predictor for cultural adaptation, followed by closeness (β = − 0.107, p = 0.008), and social relationships (β = 0.095, p = 0.032). This means that the respondents’ positive experiences, closeness and social relationships in Malaysia influence their state of cultural adaptation. It is important to note that while the respondents’ positive experiences and social relationships influence their cultural adaptation positively, closeness indicates the contrary, that is, negatively influencing cultural adaptation). As explained in Table 1 above, closeness as a predictor refers to the respondents’ proximity to a certain group that shares aspects of commonality such as nationality, ethnicity, language, identity, and religion. Another predictor, namely, the respondents’ disconnection from the host society (β = − 0.047, p = 0.258) toward their cultural adaptation was not statistically significant. Table 3 below presents the overall results of the regression analysis.

Table 3 Results of multiple regression analysis

Respondent’s demographic characteristics and factors (variables) contributing to their cultural adaptation

A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to identify the relationships between the respondents’ demographic characteristics and the factors (variables) contributing to their cultural adaptation in Malaysia. First, we examined the relationship between the respondents’ demographic characteristics and their positive experiences in Malaysia (see Table 4). The analysis suggests that differences in the migrant worker’s positive experiences were statistically significant by gender [F(1, 408) = 6.321, p = 0.013], age [F(4, 405) = 5.066, p = 0.001], nationality [F(3, 406) = 9.090, p = 0.000] and the length of employment [F(4, 405) = 4.513, p = 0.001]. From the gender lens, female respondents reportedly have higher positive experiences (M = 32.35, SD = 3.92) as compared to male respondents (M = 33.58, SD = 3.40). When comparing the age range, respondents aged > 50 years old and above indicated the highest level of positive experience compared to the other age groups. A significant difference in respondent’s positive experiences was found between respondents aged > 50 years old and 18–30 years old (p = 0.015, 95% C.I. − 5.95, − 0.41), > 50 years old and 31–40 years old (p = 0.029, 95% C.I. 0.19, 5.83), and 41–50 years old and 19–30 years old (p = 0.025, 95% C.I. 0.14, 3.44).

Table 4 Relationship between respondents’ demographic characteristics and their positive experiences (factor)

In terms of nationality, respondents from Indonesia have the highest mean score for positive experiences (M = 34.21, SD = 3.34), followed by Bangladesh (M = 32.64, SD = 4.09), Myanmar (M = 31.95, SD = 3.96), and Nepal (M = 31.63, SD = 3.48). A significant difference in positive experiences was found between respondents from Indonesia and Bangladesh (p = 0.017, 95% C.I. 0.97, 2.93), Indonesia and Nepal (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. 1.19, 2.93), Indonesia and Myanmar (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. 0.83, 3.62). The differences in the respondents’ positive experiences by length of employment were also statistically significant and were found between those who have worked for more than 10 years and those who have worked between 2 and 3 years (p = 0.001, 95% C.I. 0.71, 3.99). Respondents who have worked in Malaysia for > 10 years have the highest mean score for positive experiences (M = 34.05, SD = 3.52), followed by 6–10 years (M = 32.55, SD = 3.94), 4–5 years (M = 32.53, SD = 3.60), 2–3 years (M = 31.69, SD = 4.11), and less than one year (M = 30.66, SD = 2.34). The data indicates that the longer the migrant workers are employed in Malaysia, there is higher the likelihood they would have a more positive experience in the country.

Second, we examined the relationships between the respondents’ demographic characteristics and disconnection (factor or label). The analysis found that the difference in respondents’ feeling of being disconnected from the local community (labelled as disconnection) was statistically significant within their age group [F(4, 405) = 2.977, p = 0.001], nationality [F(3, 406) = 10.868, p = 0.000], and occupation [F(4, 405) = 4.504, p = 0.001], see Table 5. A significant difference was found between those who were aged > 50 years old and < 18 years old (p = 0.048, 95% C.I. 0.02, 8.50). Respondents aged 18 years old showed the highest mean score for disconnection (M = 11.00, SD = 1.00), followed by 19–30 years old (M = 7.90, SD = 2.34), 31–40 years old (M = 7.84, SD = 2.65), 41–50 years old (M = 7.14, SD = 2.17), and > 50 years old (M = 6.73, SD = 2.76), indicating that the older the respondents, the less likely they would feel disconnected from the host society. Additionally, there was a significant difference in disconnection between respondents from Indonesia and Bangladesh (p = 0.017, 95% C.I. 0.19, 2.93), Indonesia and Nepal (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. 1.19, 3.96), and Indonesia and Myanmar (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. 0.89, 3.62). The analysis also found that Indonesian respondents experienced a significantly lower disconnection with the host society, as compared to respondents from Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar. As for occupation, disconnection was significantly different between respondents who worked in the construction and manufacturing sectors (p = 0.011, 95% C.I. − 2.29, − 1.91), and between manufacturing and other occupations (p = 0.012, 95% C.I. 0.34, 4.22). This also suggests that those who worked in the manufacturing sectors (M = 8.3, SD = 2.37) were found to feel more disconnected from the host society, as compared to migrant workers in other occupations or economic sectors.

Table 5 Relationship between respondents’ demographic characteristics and disconnection (factor)

Third, we examined the relationships between the respondents’ demographic characteristics and their social relationships (see Table 6). The analysis found a significant difference in the respondents’ social relationships based on gender [F(1, 408) = 5.634, p = 0.018], age [F(4, 405) = 4.823, p = 0.001], nationality [F(3, 406) = 7.488, p = 0.000], and length of employment [F(4, 405) = 7.796, p = 0.000]. The difference in female and male respondents’ social relationships was statistically significant, where females indicated a higher level of social relationship (M = 19.70, SD = 3.26) than males (M = 18.67, SD = 3.39). A significant difference in social relationships was also found between respondents aged > 50 years old and 19–30 years old (p = 0.008, 95% C.I. 0.53, 5.41), > 50 years old and 31–40 years old (p = 0.023, 95% C.I. 0.24, 5.19), and between 41 and 50 years old and 19–30 years old (p = 0.030, 95% C.I. 0.09, 2.99), where the mean score for each age group was; > 50 years old (M = 21.46, SD = 2.44), 41–50 years old (M = 20.04, SD = 3.32), 31–40 years old (M = 18.74, SD = 3.69), 19–30 years old (M = 18.49, SD = 3.08), and 18 years old (M = 16.66, SD = 4.93). This suggests that older respondents are more likely to be able to establish social relationships with the host society.

Table 6 Relationship between respondents’ demographic characteristics and social relationships (factor)

When it comes to nationality, a significant mean difference was found between respondents from Indonesia and Nepal (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. 0.09, 3.36), Indonesia and Myanmar (p = 0.016, 95% C.I. 0.18, 2.59), and between Bangladesh and Nepal (p = 0.015, 95% C.I. 0.15, 2.56). It was suggested that Indonesian respondents tend to have better social relationships with the host society (M = 19.95, SD = 3.04), as compared to respondents from Bangladesh (M = 19.18, SD = 3.30), Nepal (M = 18.81, SD = 3.39), and Myanmar (M = 18.56, SD = 3.46). Respondents’ social relationship is also significantly different by the length of employment. A significant mean difference was found between respondents who have worked in Malaysia for > 10 years, and 4–5 years (p = 0.006, 95% C.I. 0.34, 3.06), > 10 years and 2–3 years (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. = 0.90, 3.74), > 10 years and < 1 year (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. 1.58, 7.95), and between 6 and 10 years and < 1 year (p = 0.015, 95% C.I. 0.46, 6.67). The mean score for each length of employment category was; > 10 years old (M = 20.32, SD = 3.23), 6–10 years (M = 19.12, SD = 3.36), 4–5 years (M = 18.61, SD = 2.85), 2–3 years (M = 18.00, SD = 3.41), and < 1 year (M = 15.55, SD = 5.63), indicating that a respondent’s ability to build social relationships with the host society increases the longer they work in Malaysia.

Next, we examined the relationship between the respondents’ demographic characteristics and closeness—i.e., the likelihood of respondents interacting only with people from similar cultures or countries. The analysis found that closeness is significantly different within age group [F(1, 408) = 1.828, p = 0.009], level of education [F(3, 406), 3.165, p = 0.024], nationality [F(3, 406) = 10.636, p = 0.000], and occupation [F(4, 405) = 3.287, p = 0.011] (see Table 7). The level of closeness among male respondents was higher compared to female respondents, indicating that male respondents were more likely to depend on cultural proximity. The mean difference in closeness was statistically significant between respondents from Indonesia and Bangladesh (p = 0.028, 95% C.I. − 1.44, − 0.05), Indonesia and Nepal (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. − 2.13, − 0.73), Indonesia and Myanmar (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. − 1.85, − 0.47), and between Nepal and Bangladesh (p = 0.046, 95% C.I. 0.00, 1.36). The highest mean score for the closeness variable was found among respondents from Nepal (M = 5.42, SD = 1.92), followed by Myanmar (M = 5.15, SD = 2.31), Bangladesh (M = 4.73, SD = 1.85), and Indonesia (M = 3.98, SD = 1.24).

Table 7 Relationship between respondents’ demographic characteristics and closeness (factor)

Finally, we examined the relationship between respondents’ demographic characteristics and overall cultural adaptation (see Table 8). The analysis found that cultural adaptations among migrant respondents differ by gender [F(1, 408) = 4.527, p = 0.034] and nationality [F(3, 406) = 10.785, p = 0.000]. Specifically, female respondents have a higher level of cultural adaptation (M = 8.42, SD = 1.14), compared to male respondents (M = 8.10, SD = 1.19). The mean difference in respondents’ nationality was also statistically significant, where a significant difference was noted between respondents from Indonesia and Bangladesh (p = 0.003, 95% C.I. 1.43, 0.98), Indonesia and Nepal (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. 0.45, 1.30), and between Indonesia and Myanmar (p = 0.000, 95% C.I. 0.32, 1.15). The highest mean score for the cultural adaptation variable was found among Indonesian respondents (M = 8.72, SD = 1.08), followed by Bangladesh (M = 8.15, SD = 1.21), Myanmar (M = 7.99, SD = 1.19), and Nepal (M = 7.84, SD = 1.11). The results suggest that Indonesian respondents are more likely to have a higher cultural adaptation than respondents from other countries.

Table 8 Relationship between respondents’ demographic characteristics and cultural adaptation (overall)

Discussion

The regression analysis in the previous section indicates how such factors as positive experiences and social relationships contribute positively to the respondents’ cultural adaptation to Malaysia. Sharing certain things in common such as language, cultural identity and religion plays a role in shaping positive experiences and social relationships between respondents (especially among Indonesian and Bangladeshi migrant respondents) and the host society (see Dannecker, 2013). It is important to note that not all respondents benefit from these aspects of commonality, for instance, Nepali and Myanmar respondents. This was already highlighted in a study conducted by Adhikary et al. (2018) which revealed that Nepali migrant workers are unlikely to have a positive experience working in such Muslim countries as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (i.e., due to such differences). Additionally, the regression analysis also found that the aspect of closeness (as a factor) contributes negatively to their cultural adaptation. This suggests that maintaining closeness only within their own communities hinders migrants from adapting and integrating with the host society (Segal, 2019).

Besides, the analysis of variance (ANOVA) found that factors influencing cultural adaptation differ significantly according to the respondents’ demographic characteristics. This suggests a complex relationship between a migrant worker’s ability to adapt and his/her gender, nationality, and length of employment in Malaysia. This complex interplay is shaped by such factors as gender, place attachment, cultural norms and identity, social networks, and employment policy in Malaysia (Sadiq, 2009; Talib et al. 2012; Grzymała-Kazłowska, 2013; Ryan & Mulholland, 2015; Grzymala-Kazlowska & Ryan, 2022; Wahab & Hamidi, 2022). This discussion section aims to further discuss this complex interplay.

Gender and cultural adaptation

One of the key highlights from the statistical analysis indicates that female respondents (as compared to male respondents) are more likely to have positive experiences with the host society. Presumably, this also leads to stronger levels of cultural adaptation. The female respondents not only expressed positive experiences in Malaysia but were also more likely to establish social relationships with the host society. Importantly, the survey also found that the social relationships built or maintained by these female respondents are not necessarily limited to their relationships with the host society, but also occur within the migrant communities (e.g., with other migrant nationalities), migrants from the same countries and relationships with male respondents. This finding contradicts the existing literature, especially involving Asian female migrants in European countries who are allegedly unable to establish or engage in social relationships with the host society (see Sadian, 2021).

Migrants create their own symbolic physical space, causing separation and isolation

Unlike female respondents, the statistical analysis found that male respondents tend to only get along, interact, and socialize with people from migrant communities, particularly migrants from the same countries. This finding is not new, and it indirectly implies separation and rejection of the host society’s culture and identity (see Kassim & Mat Zin, 2011). It is commonly known in Malaysia that migrant communities create their own physical spaces and environments in which they interact socially with workers, especially those from the same country and province (Wahab, 2020). These physical spaces, such as Central Market and Mydin Kota Raya (i.e., marketplace) in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, are symbolic of migrant communities. Migrant workers are very much accustomed to gathering, socializing, meeting old and new friends among migrant communities, eating and buying basic needs in places such as Mydin Kota Raya, especially during public holidays. Thus, creating symbolic physical spaces among migrants in Malaysia serves as an act of collectivism but it may also cause further separation and isolation from the host society.

Cultural adaptation and preservation of migrants’ identity

The survey found that migrant respondents who have stayed and worked in Malaysia for more than 10 years are more likely to have positive experiences and are also more likely to establish social relationships with the host society. This implies that migrant respondents would have to go through a relatively long period working in Malaysia before they are able to establish positive interactions, relationships, and experiences in the country. Throughout this period, they would learn the local language, norms, cuisines, social etiquette, and new skills, while building trust, new networks, and friends among the host society (Wahab & Hamidi, 2022). Existing literature points out that any migrant individual who has undergone a long period of adaptation and assimilation process will also undergo identity changes (Cormos, 2022). These identity changes are noticeable, for instance, the ability to speak local languages or changes in lifestyle.

In Malaysia, it can be generally observed that while migrants have successfully undergone a long process of adaptation and assimilation, they strive to preserve their unique identities and cultural practices, including Indonesian migrants who have worked and stayed in the country for longer than 10 years. Such preservations are manifested in almost all domains of their everyday life in Malaysia—from food, attire, lifestyle, and money management (Muniandy, 2017). The presence of support facilities such as Nepali, Bangladeshi and Indonesian grocery shops and restaurants in such locations as Pudu Raya and Klang, that offer native cuisines and meet the daily needs of the migrant community, and remittance facilities offering money transfers—all indicate the preservation of the unique cultural identity and lifestyles of the migrant population.

Different cultural identities and practices delay the cultural adaptation process

Unsurprisingly, given the close similarity of cultural identities (e.g., language and religion) with the dominant ethnic group among the host society (i.e., the Malay community), Indonesian respondents tend to have more positive experiences and establish social relationships with the host society, as compared to other migrant nationalities, especially migrants from Nepal and Myanmar. On the contrary, migrant respondents from Nepal and Myanmar tend to maintain cultural proximity with their fellow citizens, and eventually become disconnected: socially and culturally, from the host society. Cultural practices such as chewing betel nuts and spitting randomly in public spaces, commonly associated with Myanmar and to a certain extent Nepali respondents, are considered incompatible with the local norms. Such cultural practices not only slow down cultural adaptation among certain groups of the migrant population but also create prejudice and negative perceptions among the host society (towards Nepali and Myanmar citizens). This also reinforces the notion that cultural adaptation is not only about the ability of the migrant population to overcome and adapt to the new environment but also requires the understanding of and acceptance by the host society. In other words, cultural adaptation is a two-way interaction and acceptance process.

The nature of employment influences the process of cultural adaptation

The statistical analysis found that migrant respondents who worked in the manufacturing sector were more likely to be disconnected from the host society. Specifically, some migrant respondents expressed difficulties interacting with other employees at the workplace and neighbourhood and eventually felt isolated from the host society. These respondents admitted that they also find it difficult to adapt to the local cultures. Other than manufacturing, migrant workers in Malaysia are commonly present in such sectors as construction, plantation, agriculture, services, and domestic work. This study covered migrant respondents from all these sectors except domestic work.

It is important to highlight that workers in the manufacturing sector tend to work long hours, work overtime during public holidays, and mingle with almost the same groups of workers at workplaces (Wahab, 2020; Wahab & Hamidi, 2022). It is also a common practice where employers to require migrant workers to live in employer-sponsored hostels, where they are separated according to their respective nationalities by design (Wahab, 2023). Existing studies also indicate that most employers impose strict outing procedures, discouraging workers from leaving their hostels even after working hours (Wahab, 2019). When they have to leave their hostels, the migrant workers are required to get permission from their supervisors. This suggests that the nature of employment in the manufacturing sector, coupled with strict accommodation procedures imposed by employers, has negatively impacted the workers’ attitudes and lifestyles, including limiting their ability to interact, socialize and get to know the local cultures. This contributes immensely to the lower level of cultural adaptation among migrant workers.

Conclusion

This study attempted to assess the relationship between the international mobility of migrant workers and their cultural adaptation in Malaysia. Specifically, this study aimed to identify the factors that influence the migrant workers’ cultural adaptation in the country. Using a multiple regression analysis, the study found that the three most significant predictors contributing to cultural adaptation among migrant workers in Malaysia are positive experiences, closeness, and social relationships. In other words, this finding suggests that the respondents’ positive experiences, closeness and social relationships in Malaysia influence their cultural adaptation, but such influence may be positive or negative. For instance, while the findings indicate that the respondents’ positive experiences and social relationships positively influence the respondents’ cultural adaptation, closeness indicates a negative influence on cultural adaptation. Another factor (or predictor), namely disconnection, was found not statistically significant. The analysis of variance (ANOVA), however, revealed significant differences in the respondents’ cultural adaptation based on such demographic characteristics as age, gender, level of education, nationality, length of employment, and sector of employment. For example, female migrants have a higher level of positive experiences, social relationships, and cultural adaptation, while male migrants have a higher level of closeness (i.e., high reliance on cultural proximity). Other demographic characteristics such as age and level of education influence respondents’ positive experiences, disconnection, social relationships, and cultural adaptation in Malaysia. With respect to respondents’ nationality, Indonesian respondents (compared to Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar) are strongly associated with a higher level of positive experiences, social relationships, and eventually having a stronger cultural adaptation.

The analysis of migrants’ cultural adaptation also aims to relate and better understand the growing literature concerning employment precariousness among the migrant population in the country. To help elucidate this connection, several attributes which explain how certain age groups, gender, or nationality integrate were discussed. These attributes include gender, preservation of cultural identities, creating symbolic physical places, and the nature of employment. Notwithstanding, this study is not without its limitations. The area of focus in the current study was limited to Bandar Baru Bangi, a township located in one of the districts of Selangor, Malaysia. Respondents were recruited utilising a non-probability sampling technique, thus caution must be exercised in generalising these findings to a larger population. Future studies should utilise a systematic and probability sampling strategy to recruit respondents for more generalizable inferences. Triangulation of the findings is also recommended through in-depth interviews or focus group discussions on the personal experiences of migrant workers in Malaysia.

To conclude, the continuous economic growth and development in Malaysia necessitate a stable supply of labour. Where the local workforce is reluctant to meet the existing labour gaps in certain economic sectors (e.g., manufacturing and plantation), a migrant workforce is the only viable option, which drives international mobility among migrant communities from developing and under-developed countries to migrate and work temporarily in Malaysia. When migrants do so, they interact and live with the host society, in a direct or indirect manner. These interactions demand continuous scholarly and policy discourse, probing and reimagining the current state of integration and their far-reaching impact on the livelihood of millions of migrants without jeopardizing the security and prosperity of the host society.

Availability of data and materials

The study is based on quantitative interview materials which were collected on the basis that they remain anonymous and confidential.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewer(s) for their constructive feedback.

Funding

This work was supported by the Fundamental Research Grant Scheme (FRGS) [Ref: FRGS/1/2021/SSI0/UKM/02/1].

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AME, AAA, AM and FM contributed to the overall design, data collection and analysis of the survey, while AW and KAT contributed in synthesizing the existing body of literature and writing the discussion and conclusion sections. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Andika Wahab.

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Research Ethics Committee of the National University of Malaysia (UKM), (Ref. No.: UKM PPI/111/8/JEP-2022/497).

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Enh, A.M., Wahab, A., Azlan, A.A. et al. Life experiences and cultural adaptation among migrant workers in Malaysia. CMS 12, 1 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40878-023-00360-1

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