ALMOST every country has a public holiday dedicated to workers.
In Malaysia, Labour Day is given more prominence because the Employment Act and Labour Ordinances recognises it as one of the five designated public holidays that cannot be replaced, i.e. employers who require their employees to work on this special day must pay public holiday rates and overtime rates for a total of 4.5 times the ordinary rates of pay.
The other four public holidays are the King’s Birthday, the Head of State’s Birthday, Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day.
For the rest of the holidays (for example, Chinese New Year falls on February 10 and 11, 2012), employers with prior notice have the option to require their employees to work and take their holidays at the end of the month, say February 27 and 28.
Such is the prominence given to workers’ day. Employers do not have employers’ day; businesses do not have business day.
So why are workers so special? And does this “specialness” translate into anything meaningful? Sadly not.
Despite the one-man one-vote concept — meaning that workers will always outnumber employers and businesses — governments are generally capitalistic and pro-business in composition, policy and implementation.
Yes some countries do have labour governments, but in recognition of the capitalist world, their policies are still pro-business. So workers usually get a raw deal.
I accept capitalism as the lesser of the capitalistic/socialist devil. Experience worldwide has indicated that socialism does not work. All too often socialist countries do not perform well across all indicators.
It is also important to note that countries that did not embrace communism and socialism have strong and effective trade unions. It has been argued strongly that Western Europe contained the spread of communism principally because of the existence of independent and democratic trade unions that allowed workers to have a reasonable share of the economic pie.
It has been recently argued in a business weekly (The Edge) that humanity’s greatest achievement is the economic development during the past 200 years driven by the industrial revolution that allowed countries to move away from an agricultural and subsistence era into the modern era of trade and services.
Perhaps so, but the obvious question is whether this explosive growth that brought with it increases in standard of living through the world is sustainable.
The more optimistic (and rich) amongst us may like to think that we can carry on like this for the next 50,000 years. Can we continue to focus on myopic economic growth (for humans), plow and exploit our one and only planet of its resources and destroy its environment?
I believe that we must, in our pursuit of economic growth, make sure it is sustainable. Is the pursuit of profits that shareholders and investors now demand – double digit growth year on year? Or should we follow Bhutan, which has a national happiness index?
Would Reaganomics’ small government, big business model of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher continue to dictate economic thoughts, i.e., reduce income tax so that rich investors will invest and create more wealth to benefit everybody (not to mention profits for themselves).
A rising tide raises all boats, but how about those small boats that are anchored to the bottom of the sea bed? Will the small boats be able to ride out economic storms as well as super yachts and ocean liners?
I believe that life will always balance out. So until and unless humanity finds a fairer way to share our planet’s resources, someone, somewhere will one day pay. The poor will pay first and this will give rise to social unrest. The rich can only run so far. I am unashamedly bias, but trade unions, having proven to be an effective income distribution tool must be allowed to play an important part in sustainable economic development. Countries with strong unions have shown the highest productivity, competitiveness and a much more equal society.
Since Merdeka our government has bowed to employers and sought to suppress wages, in the name of competitiveness. They have stifled the rights of workers and trade unions. As a result income disparity in Malaysia between the rich and the poor has widened. The purchasing power of ordinary Malaysians has dropped significantly.
Belatedly, our New Economic Model (NEM) seems to recognise this, so I am hopeful that the move to become a high-income nation will result in brighter future for workers and unions with sustainable development and economic growth.
So this Labour Day, I call on all workers to join and support unions. I call on businesses to work hand-in-hand with trade unions to develop business models that are for all stakeholders, not just to create shareholder value.
I call on the government to promote and develop responsible and effective unions. I call on union leaders to be sincere, develop skills set and competencies so that we together can make Malaysia a sustainable country.
Happy Labour Day!