Does Malaysia really have a ‘labour shortage’?

Why should workers take up low-paying jobs in deplorable conditions?

The roads travelled for work - Women Migrant Workers in Singapore and Malaysia by UN Women Gallery/Flickr

According to reports, workers in the US are quitting their jobs by the millions.

In August, September and October, 4.3 million, 4.4 million and 4.2 million workers reportedly resigned their jobs, taking advantage of new job opportunities.

Curtis Dubay, an economist with the US Chamber of Commerce, said the pandemic is changing workers’ attitude to work. Since April, 2021, the overwhelming majority of workers in lower-skilled jobs in the service sector are said to have quit. Jobs that are traditionally less pleasant and with fewer skills required are having a harder time keeping their workers.

With about 4.5% unemployed workers in Malaysia, theoretically, we ought to be able to attract workers. But we hear of a shortage of workers in almost all sectors.

So we need to ponder whether, like in the US, our workers are shunning traditionally lower-skilled, lower-paying jobs in the hotel, plantation, manufacturing, construction and other sectors.

Have the prolonged periods of lockdowns, resulting in massive job losses and underemployment, also seen a change of attitudes towards traditional lower-skilled, lower-paying jobs among our workers? This may well require a study.

In the US, the federal minimum wage, as we understand, is $7.25 per hour (RM30.50 per hour). Even then, workers there are not attracted to seek employment.

Given our minimum wage of RM1,200 per month (about RM5 an hour), one has to ask whether Malaysian employers are paying fair wages that would spur workers to take up jobs in the hotel, plantation, manufacturing, construction and other sectors.

That Malaysian employers are clamouring for an influx of migrant workers suggests that local employers are addicted and dependent on lower-skilled migrant workers as a source of cheap labour. 

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The local manufacturing, construction, plantation, hotel and service sectors have been urging the government to permit the hiring of migrant workers without so much as committing themselves to enhancing the grossly inadequate minimum wage or related terms and conditions of employment.

Among the glaring injustices in hiring migrant workers, as we have experienced, are the instances of abuse of forced labour indicators.

From exorbitant recruitment fees and excess working hours to substandard housing conditions, migrant workers have been eking out a living in conditions described as modern-day slavery.

And yet the government has found it fit to succumb to the employers’ demands to hire migrant workers.

To justify the need to hire migrant workers, employers have argued that local workers do not want to work in dirty, dangerous and demanding jobs.

We need to ask not why local workers refuse such jobs but why should they do so under forced labour conditions – low pay, lower-skilled, excessive hours of work, unsafe working conditions and unfair terms of employment.

Obviously, we badly need to embark on a realignment of the pathetic system of minimum wage determination and the outdated minimum labour standards provided by the relevant laws.

We need to move to a ‘living wage’ system, as expounded in a 2018 Bank Negara study, which stated a single worker needs a living wage of RM2,700 to survive.

Further, we need to recalibrate our archaic minimum labour standards, as provided for, say, in the Employment Act 1955. Take, for example, the Termination and Layoff Benefits Regulations 1980: for 41 years, it has remained in the statute books with no improvement.

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We have not yet implemented the International Labour Organization Convention 183, which provided 14 weeks’ maternity leave – and yet we lament that the low female participation in the labour force.

Social security protection is a cause for concern, especially when viewed in light of the Employees Provident Fund’s disclosure that only 3% of private sector workers have enough retirement savings. According to the EPF, retirees need to work between four and six years beyond their retirement age to sustain themselves after retirement.

Given this sad state of affairs, the government needs political will to transform the socioeconomic employment landscape of the nation.

As long as our government panders to the puppet masters who capitalise on the misery of workers, whether Malaysians or migrants, to maximise profits, our nation will continue to be labelled as a conduit for unethical labour practices. This will then attract punitive measures by importing countries based on allegations of forced labour indicators.

So this is probably why workers shun job opportunities in the traditional lowly paid, lower-skilled employment sectors.

That said, the flourishing gig economy provided immediate financial sustenance to workers during the pandemic lockdowns.

When uncaring employers elected to impose pay cuts, retrenchments and a freeze on employment, the gig economy served as a financial buffer for such affected workers. And workers will probably not want to return to toil in the servitude system of employment perpetuated by employers.

K Veeriah is a veteran trade unionist based in Bukit Mertajam, Penang



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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
19 Dec 2021 2.29am

When I was teaching in Malaysia I was involved with a research project and in this research, I discovered that foreign MNCs were ready to pay higher wages. It was and I présume that it is local employers who are not willing to pay higher wages and therefore want foreign migrant labour. If this continues, local films will not go up the technological ladder. It is very easy to say that locals do not want to do the dirty and hard jobs. Are they wrong? What I see here in Europe is that these dirty and hard jobs have been made easier by more mechanisation and even digitalised. It is true that cheap labour is a considération for MNCs but it has to be seen in terms of comparison to home or to other countries. No space for me to say more.