Wednesday 29 June 2011

Minimum wages now, not policies

By Syed Shahrir Syed Mohamud
It was a sad day for workers and unions in Malaysia when Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak at the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) dinner on June 14 made no firm commitment on the promotion and protection of workers’ rights.

As for the minimum wage issue, his response was that this matter is to be referred to the National Wage Consultative Council. There was also no positive response on the issues of retirement age of 60, increasing maternity leave to 90 days for all workers, and the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA).

Workers in Malaysia are still a very low priority of the current Umno-led Barisan Nasional government that has ruled since independence in 1957. Pleas of workers and their families for decent wages continue to be ignored by a government that has been shown to be pro-employer and pro-business, which, by its actions and omissions, seems to be more interested in maintaining the supply of lowly paid, “problem-free” and “easily used and disposable” workers especially for private sector companies.

Workers’ demand and plea for a basic minimum living wage law that will ensure that workers and their families will be able to live decent lives as human beings continue to be ignored by this government, which has at the same time been very fast in increasing the cost of living. This government has allowed increase in the cost of electricity, water, postal services, phone charges, toll charges, petrol and generally the cost of living.

The introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) saw an overall rise of cost of almost all goods and services. Continuous subsidy removals have also resulted in the increase of prices of basic goods and amenities needed by all persons to sustain life. All these measures that resulted in an increase in the cost of living of workers and their families have been done speedily and systematically, but at the same time this government has not ensured increase in wages, and has been systematically removing the right to secure employment until retirement age.

New workers today are being allowed by the government to be employed as short-term contract workers, and sadly even once permanent workers are made to leave through various schemes, like voluntary separation schemes (VSS) and then re-employed as short-term contract workers. Then, the government has expressed the intention of wanting to deny these now contract workers the right to go to court and claim for reinstatement when they are wrongfully dismissed by employers, but the trade unions and civil society opposed this and the government has yet to make this law.

Now, another disturbing trend is that the government is allowing some companies to avoid employment relationships, and their duties and obligations to the workers who work in their factories, plantations and workplaces. It is doing this by a new illegal entity called outsourcing agents, who are actually contractors for labour that supply workers to principals, and this clearly is not allowed in our Employment Act 1955. The law applies to all, including the government, and action is demanded that injustice and violation of law are aggressively ended.

Workers living below poverty line

On minimum wage, Malaysia always had the Wages Councils Act 1947, which gave the government the means and mechanisms to stipulate minimum wages for workers but, alas, it seems that only four categories of workers have been covered by orders made under this Act, that is, in 1967, 1970, 1972 and 1977. They are catering and hotel workers, shop assistants, cinema workers, and Penang stevedores and cargo handlers respectively. For example, the 1970 order on shop assistants provides that the minimum remuneration for a worker ranges from RM170 to RM250, depending on the age of the worker, location and whether full-time or apprentice.

Now, rather than immediately setting and implementing a minimum wage for all workers in Malaysia, or coming out with a minimum wage law, the BN government is telling us that it is tabling a new Bill called the National Wage Consultative Council Act, and the fear is that this will just be as ineffective as the previous law, and all workers will not enjoy basic minimum wages for some time yet, if at all.

The government can immediately set the basic minimum living wages for workers now, subject to later adjustment. A few months ago, the government set the minimum wages for security guards at RM700 per month, which came into effect at the end of January 2011, and as such, the government also can and should immediately set a floor minimum wage for all workers now. It is proposed that this be at least RM900 and it become effective on July 1, 2011. Further adjustments and annual periodic reviews can be done later but at least workers will get sufficient wages now for themselves and their families when cost of living is already so high.

It is sad that the new president of MTUC, Khalid Atan, saw it fit to shower praises on our prime minister, and pledged that MTUC will be working closely with this government that has a history of being anti-worker and pro-employer. MTUC, trade unions and workers’ groups must always place as priority the fight for workers’ rights and welfare, and not try to curry favour with politicians and the government of the day.

It is also distressing that MTUC has allowed the event to become an Umno event, in particular when Umno Youth used it to launch its workers complaints (aduan pekerja) website. It would have been much better if the money was just donated to MTUC to have its own independent website.

Workers and their unions have been calling for minimum wage for a long time, and this demand intensified in the last six years but, alas, the current government’s response has to date been empty promises only save for the 100,000 plus security guards that got something.

Let us not forget that a study on wages initiated by the Human Resources Ministry has revealed that almost 34% of about 1.3 million workers earn less than RM700 a month, below the poverty line of RM720 per month. And in June 2011, our prime minister is not talking about workers getting minimum wages soon but only that “…he hoped a minimum wage policy can be implemented by year-end…”

Workers demand minimum wages today – not just a policy by end of the year.

Syed Sharir Syed Mohamud is the former Malaysian Trade Union Congress president.

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