Digital economy: Consult unions and employers to assess impact on workers

In the current reality of digitalisation, artificial intelligence and the gig economy, workers could become fragmented - Photo: Lucas Fonseca /Pexels

The government ought to lay out a comprehensive plan of retraining and “upskilling” of the workers who would be affected by the move to a digitalised economic footprint, K Veeriah writes.

For a long, long time, many have called on the call for the country to wean itself off from its dependency on migrant workers, especially in manufacturing.

Economic planners have focused on automation, innovation and the transformation to artificial intelligence.

Whilst the nation needs to embrace beneficial economic transformation, it should not ignore the consequences on workers. For example, in the banking sector many job requirements were outsourced in the name of innovation. So too in the case of the dispension of over-the-counter operative functions. As a result, thousands of jobs were made redundant under the guise of “voluntary” or “mutual separation” schemes.

As we recall, in the 1980s, the traditional textile weaving loom technology was replaced, as we understand, with an innovation that was described as an “air-jet” system, which inevitably removed jobs in the industry. Although the textile industry saw innovation, it resulted in a loss of jobs in the process.

We, in the Malaysian Trades Union Congress, wish to emphasise we have never opposed technological advancements but, in the same breath, we will not condone any displacement of jobs.

The government ought to lay out a comprehensive plan of retraining and “upskilling” of the workers who would be affected by the move to a digitalised economic footprint. Until and unless such a comprehensive scheme of re-training and upskilling is implemented, it would be tantamount to putting the cart before the horse.

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Retraining and upskilling aside, is the government committed to reform the existing oppressive labour legislation that has impeded the progression of a vibrant workers’ movement? For example, will the government bring about meaningful amendments to the archaic Employment Act 1955, the Industrial Relations Act 1967 or the Trade Union Act 1959 so they they confirm with internationally accepted labour standards? As it stands, even gazetted amendments to the Industrial Relations Act have not been implemented!

All these questions, we believe, need to be tackled before the government makes the transformation to a digital economy. In this, government is under a moral obligation to engage with stakeholders such as trade unions and employers.

As it is, the government seems to have adopted a we-know-best attitude, which goes against the ideal of consensus-building that ought to be the hallmark of a consultative and inclusive administration. It has ignored the  the need to engage stakeholders in the process.

All of us, as stakeholders, must demand that the government commences constructive consultation with us on such a crucial issue.

K Veeriah is secretary of the Penang division of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress

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