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There Need To Be A National Conversation On The Issue Of Jobs And Wages

The reaction of the MTUC to Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s comments on jobs with low wages highlight, once again, the need for us to have an urgent and wide-ranging national conversation on these issues.

It is the duty and right of all Malaysians who can do so to work. Work—in all its forms—is an integral part of human dignity and self-worth.

But it is also their right to be paid fairly; so that they can build their lives and families, in healthy, safe and respectable conditions. It is the responsibility of our government, corporate and civil society leaders to make this happen.

Reputable bodies, including Bank Negara Malaysia and the Khazanah Research Institute have all convincingly argued that wages in our country are too low.

A genuine collaborative approach and consensus that involves all stakeholders must be sought to achieve economic justice and reform.

As I argued in my Labour Day message, Malaysia must improve the pay of its workers and provide greater job security. I strongly feel that our old growth model of low wages and low costs is simply no longer relevant to current national and global economic realities.

I also argued that the so-called 3D jobs (which was the source of controversy between the PM and MTUC) will become more attractive to Malaysian workers if the pay issue can be addressed. This in turn will also reduce our dependency on foreign labour and encourage greater reliance on automation.

In this respect, the Prime Minister’s other recent statement that the government is mulling a proposal to provide allowance and wage subsidies to local fresh graduates via employers to encourage hiring is certainly worth consideration.

I believe the proposals I mooted before in Parliament and in the media such as tax breaks for profitable companies who pass the savings as higher salaries for workers at the bottom tier; as well as support from both the public and private sectors for the various upskilling initiatives should be considered.

Indeed, all quarters—including the private sector—should support this. Higher wages, after all, will logically lead to a boost in spending, which will invariably benefit the private and public sector. This will also increase employee loyalty that allows employers to reap the benefit of investing in their training over the long run.

At the same time, while a minimum wage of RM1500 by 2023 must be achieved; a higher living wage tied to cost of living based on geographical conditions must also be introduced as recommended by Bank Negara. Previously I have recommended that the government procurement policy gives preference to companies that pay their workers a living wage.