It is time for the federal and state governments to implement tough measures to end self-induced poverty. Media reports have cited the Statistics Department’s figures showing that 768,700 persons were jobless in June, representing a 4.8% unemployment rate. In 2019, the numbers were lower at 508,200. Are jobs drying up? No.
The National Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia disclosed figures last month revealing 400,000 job vacancies in the plantation, glove, furniture, construction, manufacturing, services, and plastics sectors. In many hotels, existing staff hired for desk jobs now have to be occasionally deployed into housekeeping. Malaysians don’t want backbreaking work and more than half the unemployed are rejecting job offers.
We have become a nation of softies, and even carrying dishes from the kitchen to the dining table is considered tough work. You hardly see locals working as food servers in Klang Valley restaurants any more, and this trend will spread to other regions including Kinta Valley. But 30 years ago students needed no parental encouragement to take up restaurant jobs during weekends and holidays.
Avoidance of physically difficult jobs contributes to rising youth unemployment, reliance on welfare aid, growing numbers of B40 households, social indiscipline, and recruitment by online scam syndicates. The problem begins at school where students are bombarded with images of university graduates tossing their mortar boards into the air in jubilation, and catching fistfuls of ringgit that come floating down.
There are no images of vocational college grads digging spades into the fertile ground or throwing helmets into the air. This bias against physical work is weakening our society as hard labour instils discipline and builds character. Graduate recruits who are willing to push the trolley are more capable of multi-tasking and expanding their scope of responsibilities than recruits who are only willing to sit at the desk.
A teacher giving career talks ought to stop saying: “I have a former student who began life as an admin exec and secured a bigger desk job the next year.” The teacher ought to say: “I have a former student who began life as a plumber and worked his way up the pipeline to a supervisory position the next year.”
Vocational education also requires a status uplift. Higher vocational institutes should be transformed into universities offering blue-collar degrees, with graduates in the hall wearing helmets and work suits. Beyond giving you practical skills, vocational subjects ought to be taught in such a way as to demonstrate the inter-connectivity of life and the importance of maintaining relationships.
A palm-oil harvesting lesson can dwell on the fruit as the result of a chain of relationships that include the leaves, branches, trunk, and roots. These are sustained by their contact with the soil and the air. Trees also depend on each other for support, often tying their roots together. So too, as humans we must nourish our relationships and avoid snapping them, just as snapping off a branch will cause the leaves and fruits to die.
However, our blue-collar industries are partly to blame for the expanding numbers of B40 households because they want foreign workers to take up what are known as 3D jobs (dangerous, dirty and difficult) instead of making these jobs less dangerous and less dirty.
Which local wants to work on highway flyover construction when there is defective safety equipment and violation of standard operating procedures? Either they fall on a car or a slab of concrete falls on a car. And why are difficult tasks not taken up by locals? Isn’t it the job of the HR department to instil pride in work? If a graduate spends his first year harvesting palm oil, he has a good story to tell his children. They will listen intensely.
As soon as the Government lifted COVID-19 restrictions, a stunning range of companies including coffee shops lodged appeals for intake of foreign workers to resume. Instead of utilising the pandemic lockdown to reshape 3D jobs and give them better-sounding labels, these industries prepared letters of appeal to re-engage foreign workers who make up 95% of the agricultural workforce and 90% of the construction workforce, as examples.
There were 2.2 million registered foreign workers in Malaysia last year, but this was mere icing on the cake, as many employers hired foreign workers who entered the country illegally. There were an estimated 5 million undocumented foreign workers before the pandemic struck. This combined total of 7 million foreign workers made up 35% of the total labour force of 20 million.
Employers want a return to these “good ol’ days” but it is at the expense of the larger economy. Firstly, it is a severe leak in the cyclical flow of money as foreign workers send half their pay packet home to their families. World Bank figures showed that our migrant remittance outflow in 2018 was RM44 billion.
If we reduce the foreign component of the workforce to 20% instead of 35%, we retain RM18 billion a year and this money can go towards poverty alleviation programmes, thereby greatly reducing the number of B40 households. There is water, or money. But water is flowing into the drain instead of the padi fields.
Secondly, the presence of a limitless pool of foreign workers with minimal education helps industries keep wages artificially low and avoid improving work conditions, instead spending on robotic devices to automate basic manual functions. The drawback of such tight spending is that it keeps productivity low. Citizens in many developed nations willingly perform 3D jobs because they are aided by automation and safety devices.
Thirdly, skill development is being crippled by the over-dependence on foreign labour. Hundreds of unskilled foreign workers have mastered essential skills through their job exposure and are now running their own businesses, in some cases employing locals. However, many local white-collar graduates hold executive positions in blue-collar firms but fail to supervise workers properly as they have not gone through the mill.
Let’s not become a nation without command of basic vocational skills.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo.