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Happy Labour Day 2019

I wish all Malaysians—particularly the men and women who toil in our factories, farms, educational institutions, homes and offices—a very Happy Labour Day.

The fast-approaching anniversary of Pakatan Harapan’s first year in office, should be a reminder to us that a lot more needs to be done to fulfill the manifesto on which we were elected.

Indeed, we ought to be doing more and better in relation to our promises to ensure economic justice for all our people. Labour Day 2019 should therefore spur us to truly uplift Malaysian workers.

A crucial plank in realising this is to fulfil our pledge to ensure a minimum wage of RM1500 by 2023—as well as create the kind of economy that can support such jobs. The simple fact is that Malaysians are not being paid enough.

Many of the public policy problems confronting the Pakatan Harapan government—including reducing the cost of living, making housing as well as healthcare affordable and increasing access to higher education—could also be addressed by resolving this problem.

It is also interesting to note that Bank Negara, in its 2017 Annual Report provisionally estimated that a “living wage” for Kuala Lumpur, in 2016, should have been between RM1500 (for a single adult) to RM6500 (for a couple with two children) per month.

Of course, this cannot be done simply by the government legislating it to be so and demanding that employers comply.

Rather, as a March 2018 Bank Negara paper argued: “The move towards productivity-led wage growth relies on wide-ranging support from all parts of the economy. Governments can foster a conducive environment for employers to improve productivity by ensuring the availability of good institutional support, minimal regulation on productive investment activities, and the affordability of training and higher-level education. Employers can train existing employees and provide incentives for them to upgrade their skills…

“Employees need to also recognise the importance of self-improvement to achieve a higher wage level that can sustain a minimum acceptable living standard, and take the initiative to upskill.”

Much can be done all-round. For instance, government procurement paradigms should be shifted to also ensure value-add to Bumiputera workers and entrepreneurs, rather than passively handing out contracts by getting them to commit to a roadmap to pay a living wage to their workers.

Also, profitable corporations should be given tax cuts on the condition that the savings be used to increase employee wages, especially at the lower level.

Initiatives to upskill, add value and retrain workers need to be supported by both the public and private sector, whether financially or in-kind. This includes in increasingly crucial areas like languages (including English), IT and other soft skills.

Efforts to get the differently-abled, senior citizens who wish to remain active as well as former drug addicts and ex-convicts who have paid their debt to society to work should likewise be supported by all.
Barriers—deliberate or otherwise—against women to have careers and raise families must be eliminated. Our country’s decades-long addiction to foreign labour must also cease—and again, ensuring living wages of all classes of work is key to this.

Also, Malaysian workers themselves must strive to improve their productivity and employability. This is a holistic process that requires everyone’s support. Pakatan Harapan needs to listen, and it needs to act if it is to do right by the working men and women of Malaysia.