‘Full employment’ in Sarawak – but how many decent jobs?

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Full employment in Sarawak masks underemployment and the lack of decent jobs in the state, says Andrew Lo.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) refers to the response from Urban Planning, Land Administration and Environment Assistant Minister Len Talif Salleh.

We respect Len’s views even though we may not agree with some of them. This reinforces the need to have a state minister responsible for human resources and to have a platform for the government, employers and workers to deliberate human resources issues to find a solution to move the state forward.

Coastal highway vs Pan Sarawak trunk road

Regarding his challenge for me to take a ride with him from Kuching to Lawas on the coastal highway, I wish to inform him that I have driven along that road a few times from Rambungan/Sampadi to Lawas. Would he like to see the 16 immigration stamps on my passport?

I have missed the Trisio ferry by a few minutes and cursed the fact I had to wait another hour for it to come back. I wondered at the massive cost to build a bridge across the raging Batang Lupar River.

Along the whole stretch except maybe from Asia Jaya to Sebuyau, Trisio Maludam and Pusa, all I saw were kilometre after kilometre of oil palm plantations. They certainly didn’t look like forests to me! I have also driven kilometres into the plantations and have had to turn back for fear of running out of petrol.

I have been to almost all towns big and small in Sarawak, except Song, the poorest district in the whole of Malaysia. I have been to quite a few longhouses and villages including hiking up to Bukit Sadok, the site of legendary Iban warrior Rentap’s last stand against British colonialists. I have also driven along “the road to nowhere” ie the federal administrative centre road.

The MTUC never claimed that the coastal highway project was a waste of money. We clearly stated it should not be prioritised over the Pan Sarawak trunk road (now Pan Borneo), which runs almost parallel to it, with less than 100km separating the two.

I have driven along the Pan Sarawak road when the Engkilily-Betong and the Selangau-Tatau stretches were at their worst. Those were the times when the runway-smooth Dalat-Matu Daro-Mukah coastal stretch was being built. Along the coastal highway, my Proton Persona and rental vans had to jump over culverts due to land subsidence. So unless Len is driving a more comfortable car, I respectfully decline his offer as I have slipped disc issues!

Since we are on the subject of roads, would Len please install street lamps on the 100-year-old Kuching-Bau road? I am quite sure we can divert some lamps from some other roads that are so brightly lit one can play badminton on the streets at night.

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How many decent jobs created?

As for job creation in Samalaju, in January 2013 I was requested by the Labour Department to assist in diffusing industrial unrest when more than 1,000 local workers were sacked and their jobs taken over by foreign workers engaged by the companies building the factories.

With regard to Samajaya, the MTUC has not overcome the hurt when almost 1,000 Sanmina SCI employees lost their jobs overnight and were escorted out of their workplace by security guards with dogs. It was the MTUC who assisted them to obtain additional compensation.

For the record, we have never stated that that no decent jobs have been created; we merely urge the government to make the creation of decent jobs a priority. We maintain our belief that we are not doing enough

Len is correct when he states that 3.8% unemployment is considered full employment by World Bank standards. But this does not address graduate unemployment and underemployment (eg degree holders driving Grab cars or employees taking on second jobs).

Full employment should lead to wage increases. But this has not happened as the state has allowed in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers – which in turn has depressed wages and discouraged innovation.

As for Len’s challenge to the MTUC to ask hi-tech industry players about the number of high-paying jobs they have provided to Sarawakians, we tried, but the companies do not recognise unions and have declined to provide the information. So would he please assist us in providing the full figures (as he said the numbers would be contrary to the MTUC’s claims).

Instead of just highlighting one or two new employers, Len should provide figures of all the jobs created over the past 20 years across all industries and sectors and tell us how many of these are decent jobs.

To put things in perspective, he should also provide similar figures for Selangor, Johor and Penang considering that Sarawak is ranked third in terms of GDP.

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Do we need all those grandiose projects?

Since the state government is allocating some RM6bn for infrastructure development, we hope Len will ensure that the implementation of these projects is not done by foreign labour. (The construction industry is notorious for engaging huge numbers of foreign workers.)

Please also make sure that proper feasibility studies and cost-benefit analyses with public consultations are done before simply depleting our reserves. We don’t understand why we need to build Samalaju port when the federally controlled Bintulu Port is nearby. We should invest in human capital rather than grandiose projects like hydrogen buses.

Finally, regarding his accusation that MTUC officials do not go to the ground and gather facts, please let it be known that MTUC officials and workers are all from the ground – working and eking out a living all over Sarawak.

Andrew Lo is secretary of the Sarawak division of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress.

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