Four ways to ease the plight of long-suffering workers

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Come up with a decent living wage for a start, urges K Veeriah.

Except for a minister, the general public does not seem to subscribe to the argument that a family of four can survive on RM980 a month and yet be categorised as living out of poverty in Malaysia.

Bank Negara Malaysia’s input was that workers in the country ought to be paid a living wage as opposed to the inadequate minimum wage of RM1,100 a month. According to the central bank, individuald living in Kuala Lumpur ought to be paid RM2,700 a month to sustain themselves. The report also estimated that for a family of four, the living wage ought to be about RM6,500.

However, the reality is the vast majority of workers are wallowing in a low and middle-income trap due to inequitable wages that do not commensurate with the existing cost of living indexes.

The polemics as to why this is so may stretch from the promotion of Malaysia as a low-wage nation to the suppression of decent wage growth with the influx of migrant workers and much more.

That, in a nut-shell, is a manifestation of the weak economic position of our workers.

Their contributions to the Emplyees Provident Fund (EPF), the main private sector workers’ retirement plan, are not enough to sustain them after they retire at 60.

More than 50% of EPF contributors do not have enough retirement savings. One need not be a rocket scientist to conclude that the bottom 40% – and to a large extent the middle 40% – will be faced with two options upon retirement:

  • depend on social security, which is almost non-existent in our country, or
  • continue to seek employment albeit at low-paying jobs at the dictates of uncaring employers
  • Sadly, in the second option, retired citizens would continue to meet the nation’s human resources needs but at subsistence income levels.

What are the alternatives that can at the least mitigate the situation? The government should consider the following proactive initiatives:

  1. Adopt a decent living wage, as recommended by Bank Negara, as the basis of wage fixation so that wage would reflect the actual cost of living
  2. Set the employers’ contribution to the EPF at a much more appropriate rate so that private sector workers’ savings would be enough to meet their post-retirement living expenses
  3. Raise the retirement age to at least 65, in view of the higher life expectancy of Malaysians, to keep workers gainfully employed
  4. Formulate a comprehensive social security net, giving priority to healthcare protection for the treatment of chronic health conditions such as kidney ailments, cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and stroke as we move to an ageing society

Workers here are the most marginalised segment of the population. That, sadly, is despite the nation’s growth, economically or otherwise, being generated on the back of the blood, sweat and lives lost of the working class.

The government is obliged to begin reforms to address the plight of the workers – from wage reforms to a holistic reform of obnoxious labour laws that have impeded the development of a vibrant workers’ movement.

Such reforms, so implicitly promised by the Pakatan Harapan government, ought to be quickly realised as the issues confronting workers are real and not an illusion.

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

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ambigapathi samarasan
ambigapathi samarasan

it all started in the 70s when the electronics factories were prevented from forming unions. these started to spread to the other sectors so there were no bargain powers for the workers to get a good wages.All were at their mercy of their bosses to get a good salary.Only the Govt, and Bank employees were protected by their unions so they have got good salary and protection.So we hope the current Govt will allow formation of Union as a law just like EPF and SOSCO.Is is not fair that some workers have Union and others do not.With the influx of foreigners into the work force they are worst off in getting a good salary