The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) is not sure which is more embarrassing: the fact that 40 Sarawakian youths are desperate enough to try their luck in countries like Cambodia or the fact that politicians are falling over each other trying to be heroes to welcome them home.
For years, tens of thousands of Sarawak youths have been seeking better jobs outside Sarawak, in Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and overseas. There will always be cases of workers duped by promises of good paying jobs overseas, especially more economically advance countries, but Cambodia?
It is indeed embarrassing that our youths believe that Cambodia offers better opportunities than Sarawak. It was only in the 1970s that up to 2 million Cambodians died due to starvation, overwork and executions under the notorious Pol Pot regime.
The MTUC has warned over the years that the state leaders’ inward-looking policies have driven us backwards. All these years of politics of development has not created any decent jobs in Sarawak: 10 out of the 17 poorest districts are in Sarawak.
Our tourism sector is a joke and has fallen behind Sabah. Sabah allows foreign investors to develop tourism projects while here we have a siege mentality.
Why does our once world-renowned Sarawak museum have to be closed just because we are building a multi million ringgit new one? A museum is not about the building but about the exhibits and contents.
The MTUC has long been sceptical of the “Sarawak for Sarawakians” movement and “Sarawak First” policy. We believe it is a ruse to grab more wealth for the rich and connected Sarawakians and businesses that will in turn widen the income disparity.
We have 29 state ministers and assistant ministers, but not a single one is responsible for human resources. Human resources development is key to the progress of the state and Sarawakians. We need to create a skilled workforce, propel human capital development and tackle long-standing issues on foreign workers, labour productivity, job empowerment and industrial relations. We need to develop a holistic blueprint of our human capital needs.
They blame Putrajaya for the lack of development. But is it just the fault of Putrajaya? Is it also safe to say that our state leaders in the past have failed to do their job?
Why did we build the coastal road with so many mega bridges to open up more land for oil palm and ignore the Pan-Borneo highway? Why prioritise the Pan Borneo section at Sematan/Telok Melano? Do we need to open up more and more forests in Tanjong Dato?
Greater autonomy must mean greater responsibility and accountability. The track record of the state government in matters where we already have full autonomy – land, labour and immigration – does not give any confidence.
We have so many land-grab issues, not just Native Customary Rights land for oil palm, but beachfront land and ex-government quarters demolished for condominiums and commercial shop houses.
On labour, it was only after almost 50 years that the hopelessly outdated Sarawak Labour Ordinance was amended to provide basic rights for workers only in 2008. It has not been amended since as the state government insist any amendments must have their agreement.
The minimum wage was lower in Sarawak simply because employers in the state have been paying much lower wages for the past five decades. It was only this year that the federal government implemented a uniform minimum wage rate for the whole country.
The timber tycoons always whine that they are unable to pay the same minimum wage compared to employers in West Malaysia. It beggars belief that fishermen in Kelantan can afford to pay minimum wages to their crew but Sarawak timber tycoons cannot.
All our timber forests and hectares of oil palm plantations do not translate into decent jobs so much so at least 80% of the workforce are foreigners.
We want a bigger share of the oil and gas revenue yet there is nothing about the sharing of the timber wealth, which is controlled by the Big Six timber companies. These timber companies remain vehemently opposed to the minimum wage. Wages in the oil palm and timber sectors are among the lowest while they are the highest in the oil and gas sectors.
Areas like Kapit and the interior, where so much timber has been extracted over the years, remain the poorest and the most under developed regions of Sarawak.
Our state-controlled immigration is only effective in picking up and deporting Pakatan Harapan MPs and Menteris Besar but seem to let in tens of thousands of undocumented workers, hawkers and traders, including North Koreans.
Therefore, the priority is to improve integrity, reduce corruption and ensure that wealth is equitably shared with the ordinary people of Sarawak. The creation of decent jobs must be the priority.
Otherwise, the 40 youths will not be the last to believe that countries like Cambodia offers better opportunities than Sarawak. They may even believe that Myanmar, Bangladesh and Somalia are better.
Andrew Lo is secretary of the Sarawak division of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress.