A statement by Dr Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament of Bangi, regarding the Prime Minister’s announcement on minimum wage on 19 March 2022.

The announcement by the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob that the minimum wage would be increased to RM1500/month starting on the 1st of May 2022 was strange for many reasons:

Firstly, it was done at the UMNO General Assembly rather than at an official government event;

Secondly, it was announced without the presence of the Minister of Human Resources, who is responsible for the setting of the minimum wage under the National Wages Consultative Council Act 2011;

Thirdly, it was lacking important details such as whether this minimum wage would apply across the board in the entire country or only in the cities;

Fourthly, the announcement did not come together with other much-needed labour market policy reforms such as introducing a multi-tiered levy as part and parcel of re-opening the market to bring in foreign workers; and

Fifthly, it did not come with any announcement of assistance to smaller firms that would be unduly burdened by this jump in the level of minimum wages.

Rather than making this type of piecemeal announcement, I suggest that the Prime Minister together with the Minister of Human Resources and other relevant Ministers come up with a more comprehensive package of labour policy reforms to accompany this increase in the minimum wage.

This package should include the following:

1) Consider lowering the minimum wage in non-city areas with a lower cost of living

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) government increased the minimum wage from RM1100 to RM1200 effective on the 1st of January 2020 in 57 town and city areas across the country but left the minimum wage in the non-city and town areas at RM1100. Most companies in the big cities in the west coast and southern Johor and probably in Kuching, Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu, Sabah are likely paying close to the proposed RM1500 a month to their workers. But for the rural areas in Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu in Peninsular Malaysia and in Sabah and Sarawak, many of the smaller firms probably cannot cope as well with the sudden increase in the minimum wage from RM1100 to RM1500. As such, a lower minimum wage of RM1400 should be considered for the non-town and city areas.

2) Consider setting minimum hourly wage rates in addition to the minimum monthly wage rate

At RM1500/month at a maximum of 48 hours worked a week, the minimum hourly wage works out to RM7.80/hour. The government may want to give the choice to employers to choose between a monthly minimum wage of RM1500 or a minimum hourly rate of RM7.80/hour so that the employers can have some flexibility to discuss the number of hours worked with their employees. Both employer and employee can agree to a total number of working hours that is suitable for all parties involved. Small companies which may not be able to afford this sudden jump in the minimum wages would then have the option of adjusting the number of hours worked per employee to keep their businesses sustainable.

3) The government must re-open the market to bring in foreign workers and immediately start using the multi-tiered levy system in a transparent and open manner

Many companies are willing to pay their workers a higher salary, but they are only able to adequately cover the costs of these salary increases if they were allowed to hire foreign workers for their business operations. Many manufacturers are not able to fulfil their order books, especially in the electrical and electronic (E&E) sector, and as such, many have also had to turn away profitable orders from overseas because of the shortage of workers.

Palm oil growers are also suffering because despite the high Crude Palm Oil (CPO) prices, many of them don’t have sufficient foreign workers to collect the Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFBs) in the plantations.

The Minister for Human Resources recently announced that it had received more than three hundred thousand applications for foreign workers across different sectors of the economy. These applications are being processed via the Foreign Workers Central Management System or FWCMS. But the approval of these applications will likely take some time especially since the Department of Manpower (JTKSM) in Peninsular Malaysia has to approve the total number of foreign workers per company.

Rather than putting the burden of deciding how many foreign workers to approve for each company, the government should immediately implement the multi-tiered levy system by industry/sector so that if a company wants to hire more foreign workers, it has to pay a progressive higher levy for an extra X% of foreign worker staffing. This proposal was already on the table during the PH government and can be utilised immediately for the purposes of determining how much this levy will be for each tier of % of foreign workers per company.

Such a policy will also allow the government to earn some much-needed revenue from employers. The reopening of the labour market to foreign workers will not have any significant impact on the unemployment rate among Malaysians since many of the jobs have not and cannot be filled currently by Malaysians.

4) Allow only companies to hire foreign workers directly

Current policy allows for foreign worker “agents” or employment agencies to apply for permits to bring in foreign workers who they will then hire out to companies from different sectors. This practice allows for the possibility that many companies push the responsibility of taking care of such contract workers to their employment agencies rather than taking up the responsibility themselves.

When this happens, these companies, including some multinationals, can plead ignorance if foreign workers working at their premises are not treated properly since they can always shift the blame to the employment agencies. This practice is recommended to be stopped when the multi-tiered levy system is introduced because companies will no longer have to “borrow” foreign workers from employment agencies so that they do not run afoul of any foreign to local labourer ratios that is set by JTKSM.

This does not mean that these employment agencies will go out of work under this arrangement. Such agencies still can provide the service of processing the necessary documents to bring in foreign workers on behalf of companies rather than for themselves.

5) Ensuring companies who bring in new foreign workers provide proper accommodation quarters

Rather than setting hard limits on the number of foreign workers which a company can apply for directly, the government should instead focus on the fulfilment of various conditions as part and parcel of the process of bringing in new foreign workers; the most important of which is the “Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990” or Act 446 (2019 Amendment).

Right now, most manufacturers, especially those in the SME classification, do not comply with Act 446. But if this is made as a precondition for bringing in new foreign workers, these companies have no choice but to meet these conditions. New Centralised Labour Quarters (CLQs) can be built and existing shop lot units in underutilised commercial centres can also be converted to accommodation for foreign workers in compliance with Act 446.

6) Allow refugees with UNHCR cards to work

There are currently more than 150,000 refugees with UNHCR issued documents living in Malaysia. Rather than “wasting” this human resource, they should be allowed to apply for temporary work permits so that they can work and take care of themselves and their families. This is not an unprecedented move as pilot programs were started under the previous BN government which allowed a small number of Rohingyas and Syrian refugees to work in Malaysia.

Think tanks such as IDEAS have made a strong case for the positive economic impact of allowing refugees in Malaysia to work. ISIS, a prominent government funded think tank, issued a comprehensive paper on granting the right to work to refugees which touches on some of the national security concerns as well as addressing the “floodgates” argument.

This 2019 paper recommended allowing refugees in Malaysia the right to work, noting that the right to work did not mean the right to naturalisation.

7) Waive the condition that vacancies for expatriate level jobs (EP1, EP2 and EP3) must be advertised through MyFutureJobs for 30 days

In a Parliamentary reply to one of my questions, PERKESO found that of more than approximately 10,000 job openings advertised on MyFutureJobs, only 81 (0.8%) were filled by locals. The rest of the talents had to be brought in from other countries.

When more EP1, EP2 and EP3 positions are filled quickly by expatriates, the companies who hire these expatriates are also able to expand their business operations and then hire local staff for different positions within the organisation. This can also help with the overall profitability of these companies which will allow them to better absorb the cost of the minimum wage going up to RM1500 per month.

8) Consider wage subsidies for smaller companies

The government launched the Jamin Kerja wage subsidy and hiring incentive scheme under PERKESO in January 2022 for companies making new hires. For example, companies which filled new positions with workers between the age of 18 to 30 were given a wage subsidy of RM900 per worker for a period of 6 months. The same kind of wage subsidy should be considered for smaller companies (with less than 10 employees) which may not be able to cope with the increase in the minimum wage from RM1100/RM1200 to RM1500.

There may be more suggestions from the relevant stakeholders including unions, employers federations, business chambers and others to improve and enhance existing labour market policies in conjunction with the increase in the minimum wage. It does not seem that the Prime Minister nor the Minister of Human Resources had consulted these stakeholders as part of the process of thinking through current labour market policies.

It is still not too late to do so. As the economy moves towards living with Covid-19 in our midst, it is all the more important that we use this opportunity to introduce meaningful changes to the labour market policies beyond merely increasing the minimum wage.


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