As the MTUC holds a nation-wide picket over amendments to the Employment Act that will further weaken the position of workers, Ronald Benjamin explains why workers are in no mood to celebrate ‘Bosses’ Day’.
I was reading the papers on 16 October 2011 and I was surprised to learn that that day had been designated as ‘Bosses’ Day’, which is observed around the world.
Being in the corporate sector for 20 years, I have learned a lot from bosses on practical and effective aspects of management. Yet, I didn’t realise that such a day existed. Even my colleagues were not aware of this day. Some might be aware but it has little significance to their lives especially for those at the operational level who seldom have the chance to meet their bosses.
According to Malaysian Trades Union Congress president Mohd Khalil Atan, Bosses’ Day is not popular in Malaysia because workers are not treated as social partners. The gap between management and staff is too wide.
He is right. There is indeed a great gap between the aspirations of management and those of employees in Malaysia. Small and medium-sized companies are concerned about how to cut the cost of labour and materials to remain competitive in situations where profits are marginal.
Multinational corporations that sell branded products depend on cheap labour and low-cost materials obtained through the monopolistic acquisition of the supply chain and then sell their products at expensive prices to affluent markets with higher profit margin.
Although there are some good leaders in the industrial sector who are conscious of the importance of employment relations and people development, they are basically stuck in a culture of short termism: having to show short-term profits with little time to reflect and nurture the collective strengths and creativity of their employees.
Employees on the other hand are more concerned about their rights, salaries and bonuses and purchasing power in a context of spiralling inflation. Although there are so-called ‘industrial relations’ involving unions, the bargaining power of unions has weakened over the years due to the influx of foreign workers. The workers’ position is made even difficult with the current amendments to the Employment Act that attempts to legalise out-sourced suppliers of workers as employers.
Then there are the tripartite industrial relations at the macro level involving employers, unions and the government, but little concern has been shown to the non-unionised environment, where the majority of workers are employed. It is in this context that the gap between management and the workforce is a glaring reality – and that is the real reason that many people are not interested in a symbolic celebration called ‘Bosses’ Day’.
The question is, what is the cause of poor employment relations? I would like relate some of my observations and experience of employment relations in small and medium-sized industries in Malaysia.
Generally, employers in the Malaysia treat workers as mere resources rather than communities with great potential to co-create a world that is beyond profits. The tendency to see profits as the end rather than means has alienated the workforce. The sense of belonging is absent in this type of organisation where short-termism has taken hold, where the monthly or yearly shareholders’ return is the main priority. Cost cutting is not achieved by developing workers to become more productive or innovative but instead by paying low salaries without much concern for the purchasing power of the workers.
Furthermore the lack of a compelling and unique purpose fails to inspire the collective and creative energy of the workforce. For example, the vision and mission statement of a company is usually narrowed down to focus on customers, rather than adopting a broader outlook that involves social responsibility such as aid to the poor or environmental activism where the management and staff can work together. The gap between management and staff could be narrowed by incorporating social responsibility in vision and mission statements that include customers, employees, and other stakeholders.
Second, Malaysian employers have no proper standards for the development of human potential. Although there is ISO certification that deals with quality management, it is often geared towards the quality of products and processes. There is no certification to assess the human development level of companies. Most of those privileged to attend training are from management while shop-floor employees are seldom sent for training to avoid losing labour hours. Training and development has become an elite privilege. The Human Resources Departments in these organisations merely play an administrative role rather a strategic role.
Third, the hierarchical structure of most non-unionised organisations has resulted in communications being a top-down affair. This has led to employees having a poor understanding of the nature of the business and its role in a competitive globalised world. Communications are limited to day-to-day operational affairs with little concern about creating a synthesis between the aspirations of employees and those of management. For example, if there is a meeting, it would be more about operations such the urgency of delivery or the rectification of a quality problem. Due to a lack of dialogue about shared destiny, the power gap has grown wider resulting in a great gulf of perception, which is inimical to long-term employer-employee relations.
Fourth, employment relations are not merely in the hands of employers. Employees too have a responsibility to shape their lives in terms of work culture and knowledge acquisition. As a human resource practitioner, I find that Malaysian workers especially those at the operations level have a poor work culture. Many lack an understanding of the importance of patiently learning a skill and becoming excellent at it. There is a tendency to jump ship for monetary reasons while failing to acquire enduring skills.
This stands in complete contrast with operational workers in countries like Singapore, Japan and even Thailand. With a weakening trade union movement in the backdrop, it is vital for workers to acquire professional knowledge and shape their own destiny without being dependent on the goodwill of employers. Employers complain of such attitudes which have also affected employment relationships over the years. There is a need for a balance between rights and responsibilities.
The government, together with the private sector, must therefore review what constitutes productive employment relations in Malaysia. We have to get rid of the culture of short termism and go beyond profits to create great synergies to make Malaysia a high-income nation.
Lofty ideals such as plans for human capital development will not be realised if the micro-level of employment relations are not taken into consideration. For Malaysia to climb up the high-income ladder, creating indigenous technology is vital, and this can only come about with a creativity that demands depth and a contemplative employment relations environment that sees profits as a means and not as an end.
Ronald Benjamin, an Aliran member, is a human rights practitioner based in Ipoh.