The Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC), several other trade unions and the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) have slammed as “humiliating” and “beggarly” the new Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) federal government's announcement that it would increase the country's minimum wage by just RM50 (A$17) a month to RM1050 ($350) from January 2019.
Unions are considering calling a mass workers' protest.
Pakatan Harapan had promised to raise the minimum wage to RM1500 if it won the May 9 general election. This promise was listed as one of those it would meet within its first 100 days in office.
After Pakatan Harapan won the election, Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran let it be known that this was a good as done as soon as the tripartite National Wages Consultation Council delivered its recommendation on a new minimum wage.
Trade unions, employer organisations and the PSM (which effectively led the mass campaign that resuted in the former Barisan Nasional government reluctantly agreeing to legislate a minimum wage in 2013) all made considered submissions to the wages council in July.
PSM Central Committee member S.Arutchelvan, who was part of the PSM submission team to the council, told Green Left Weekly that the PSM proposed the minimum wage be raised to RM1500 and be backdated to July 1, this year because, under the minimum wage legislation, a wage review is supposed to be done every two years and the last review was on July 1, 2016.
The MTUC asked for RM1800, backdated, Arutchelvan added.
The wages council itself proposed a rise to RM1250 for Peninsular Malaysia, but if the minimum wage was to be standardised it proposed RM1170 across the country (including Sabah and Sarawak, where the minimum wage is currently only RM920).
However, new PM Mohamed Mahathir dismissed even the wages council's recommendation and, instead, totally accepted the bosses' proposal for a measely RM50 increase from January 2019.
“This is a total sell-out and humiliation to the low-income workers of Malaysia,” said Arutchelvan.
“During Mahathir’s 22 years as a Barisan Nasional PM, he never allowed a minimum wage law to be legislated in spite of his own children becoming tmillionaires. When the minimum wage was finally legislated in 2012, to the joy of unions and workers, Mahathir was not at all happy.
“Now under Mahathir 2.0, nothing has changed!”
The MTUC declared that Pakatan Harapan had failed the workers in the B40 (poorest 40%) and was “corporate exploitation through the government”.
“Despite ratifying the ILO Convention 131 on minimum wage fixing, which came into force on June 7, 2017, the government has failed to take into consideration the needs of the workers and their families.
“The previous government did not take any steps to ensure an equitable distribution of wealth among Malaysians. It appears that the new government’s attitude towards the poor is no different,” said MTUC secretary-general J Solomon.
“We voted out the former government with the hope of having a government that would understand the predicament of the B40 population,” he added.
The MTUC noted that although the Pakatan Harapan government had abolished the hated goods and services tax (GST), the price of goods had remained mostly the same and the introduction of a new sales and services tax (SST) was likely to put the B40 further into debt.
The MTUC added that the new minimum wage would still leave workers in Sarawak and Sabah below the official poverty line determined under the previous government.
Malayan Nurses Union president Nor Hayati Binti Abd Rashid said that low wages have deeper impacts across the economy, since stagnant wages lead to stagnant consumption.
“The World Bank has said that Malaysia will achieve high-income status by 2020, but our deeply unequal distribution of wealth means that many too many workers are being left behind”, she explained in a joint statement by 10 unions on September 7.
“Lifting the wages of the lowest paid workers in the country does more to guarantee that capital will be pumped back into the economy, because low-paid workers spend their money, unlike wealthy executives.”
“The Pakatan Harapan manifesto gave many workers hope that a RM1500 minimum wage might be a reality soon”, said National Union of Transport Equipment and Allied Industries Workers Secretary-General N Gopal Kishnam.
“Considering the already stagnant state of working class wages against the rising costs of living, [a rise of] RM50 a month is utterly meaningless.”
Timber Employees Union of Peninsula Malaysia General Secretary Nor Azlan Yaacob said: “Our industries — wood processing, pulp and paper and furniture — are key export industries that generate a lot of revenue, and yet workers are often paid at or just above the minimum. Our workers have little to be happy about in this proposed wage revision.”
Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor, a support organisation for women workers, described the minimum wage decision as a "slap on the face for workers".
"Women workers are at the bottom rung of the wage ladder, toil with meagre wages to bring up their families where they receive very little State assistance in child care benefits. Less than 50% of the informal labour workforce are women who earn minimum wage for several years, a poverty wage," the PSWS Secretary Suguna Papachan said in a statement issued in response to the government's minimum wage decision.
Most of these women are single mothers, toiling without any pension fund benefits, workers insurance, medical or annual leave, she added.