Equality, equity and social security are vital principles for a progressive workforce and should not be left to the workings of so-called market forces, writes Ronald Benjamin.
Firstly, congratulations to M Kulasegaran on his appointment as Human Resources Minister. For the first time in Malaysian history, a strong advocate of labour rights has been appointed minister for Human Resources.
Having worked in the private sector for over 30 years, I would like to highlight some pertinent issues which the new minister needs to tackle.
Revive the duties of principal employer
Originally, migrant workers were employed directly by the principal employer but this started to change in 2005 when a cabinet committee on foreign workers, in a meeting on 5 July of that year, agreed to the recruitment of foreign workers through outsourcing companies (now known as “contractor for labour” in the amended act). Strangely, however, the outsourcing licences are issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs and not the Ministry of Human Resources.
The establishment of outsourcing companies allowed for the re-emergence of the old contract system, resulting in a direct assault on the basic foundation of labour rights, the undermining of the dignity of workers, and the perpetuation of the operation of dehumanised and bonded labour. The practice, which started with migrant workers, was then extended to local workers, some of whom are not given EPF and Socso coverage. There is a need to repeal the provisions that deny principle ownership and responsibility of employers towards the wellbeing of their workers.
Provide cross-function and cross-industry training
Malaysian workers trained in a specific industry find themselves redundant the moment a new technology crops up, or when retrenched, they are unable to be gainfully employed again due to absence of cross-industry skills. For example, a manufacturing employees will not be able to obtain jobs in the booming service industry because they don’t have the required skills. There is a need to encourage cross-training for employees while they are still employed rather than after they lose their jobs due to retrenchment.
Skill categories of workers must be widened: The easy availability of foreign workers has created a situation where wages have come down, resulting in Malaysian workers shunning jobs that are seen as dangerous, dirty and difficult (3D) and involving long hours at work.
Today, foreign workers are required to work for 12 hours with less wages compared to Malaysians. Even 3D jobs require skills, for example a stewarding job in a hotel requires the worker to have knowledge of chemicals and the proper methodology of cleaning. These workers play a significant role in maintaining hygiene in the kitchen. Thus, skills-application by using the right methodology should be taken into consideration, and compensation should be given accordingly.
The Ministry of Human Resources Ministry must give these jobs due recognition to attract Malaysian workers to learn the skills and take them up. This would result in the up-skilling of the workforce. Increasing the minimum wage alone is not enough. The workers should feel like professionals when they do their jobs.
Equal employment opportunities
There has been subtle ethnic discrimination in employee relations all this while in both the public and private sectors, especially for critical functions like finance and purchasing. There are prejudices that certain communities will not be able to perform in specific areas. In this type of subtle discrimination, the minorities are the most affected. An equal opportunities commission should be set up to ensure that employers are objective when hiring workers.
It is also vital to look at the education system where the rich are able to attend schools with the best facilities and materials while those who are poor go to schools that lag far behind in teaching methodology. The Ministry of Human Resources must work with the Ministry of Education to ensure equality in education, which would lead to all ethnic communities being able to compete on a level playing field when seeking jobs.
Safety, health and productivity
The manufacturing sector, especially certain small and medium-sized industries, is still clinging on to old technologies where short-term yearly profits matter more than long-term strategic planning that would create a conducive and healthy workplace. This is why some companies have poor working and safety conditions, resulting in illness and organ impairment among workers. These companies must be compelled to embrace advanced technologies to ensure safety, health and productivity.
Set up a body to certify the development of the workforce
A number of forums and talks on preparing Malaysians for the digital age and robotics in line with Industry 4.0 have been conducted. However, there is no national body to certify that an organisation is in compliance and committed to human resources development to meet the needs of Industry 4.0. The ministry must set up a body for this purpose to ensure that the private sector is in line with the government’s vision of increasing the skills level of our workforce.
Safety net for lower-level employees
In the Malaysian compensation and benefit system, the higher one is in an organisation’s hierarchy, the better the safety net. Workers at the lower level, such as machine operators and waiters, get the lowest benefits in terms of medical coverage and are forced to receive treatment in a crowded general hospital.
A few years ago, a quality control assistant in a factory had a serious accident and was rushed to a government hospital. Fearing for his life, his parents had him transferred to a private hospital. When they went to the factory to ask for a guarantee letter, they were told their son was only insured for RM20,000 while his medical fees added up to RM40,000. The family had to borrow the rest from relatives and friends, making them debtors in the process. Thus, having a strong safety net for all workers is vital for security and social justice.
The Ministry of Human Resources should take a fresh perspective of labour relations in this country. The principles of equality, equity, meritocracy, development and social security are vital elements for a progressive workforce and should not be left to the workings of so-called market forces or in the hands of myopic employers.
Source: The Star online