LAST December, Datuk Dr Fong Chan Onn gave a spirited defence of his track record in Parliament after M. Kulasegaran (DAP - Ipoh Barat) tabled a motion to cut RM10 from his salary as Human Resources Minister for “failing” to deal with several labour issues. Back then, the opposition MP had claimed that Dr Fong had failed to deal with the National Union of Banking Employees' (NUBE) crisis, backlog of Industrial Court cases and the issue of foreign workers. That motion had been rejected.
Of late, Dr Fong's ministry is being besieged again but he seemed very able to rise to the challenge. Identifying the major issues confronting the labour sector in Malaysia today, he said number one would be “upgrading the skills of the existing labour workforce, which is about 10million, and the new entrants to the job market.”
“If you can uplift the skills,” he said, “then we can really make a very substantial effort in terms of upgrading quality of the workforce, enabling Malaysians to compete globally.”
Upgrading the skills of the workforce is very important, he stressed, for “within that are all these subsidiary issues like the mismatch of unemployed graduates – they cannot meet the demands of the job market – and the existence of many vacancies in the country where the local workers are not interested, and we need foreign labour.”
Dependence on foreign labour also has to be addressed, and on this Dr Fong said: “we also have to convince, through the Human Resource Development Council, all the employers to use production methods that are appropriate to their sector. We must transform from labour-intensive basis to capital-intensive operations.”
Number two on Dr Fong’s list of major concerns is to maintain industrial harmony.
“To do this, we must ensure the mechanism is in place to resolve industrial disputes. We are clearing the backlog (of cases in the Industrial Court). This also involves addressing the workers’ unions, and employers’ federation, and getting them in constructive discussions in a tripartite.”
The third challenge, he said, is to maintain the safety and health aspects of the work environment. “We need to introduce new codes of practices, such as for sexual harassment and for handling HIV in the workplace. Also, we are now introducing regulations on air quality. All these are to safeguard the workers.
“Of course, besides strengthening the enforcement mechanism, we should also strengthen the social security organisation so that those who need aid can be given protection and assistance in the shortest possible time.”
“Those are the major issues,” he said. “At macro level, the ministry is looking at labour policy to detail out future direction of labour environment in country. We need to look at such things as to what extent we can depend on foreign labour, to what extent we will have to, and what sort of instruments we can use to encourage employers to mechanise.”
There is also a need to identify the sectors that have the greatest employment opportunities for Malaysians so that we can ask Government to give incentives, Dr Fong added.
“Those are what I mean by determining labour policy towards 21st century Malaysia. This also included how and to what extent we can encourage work from home using the new set of tools available, such as online conferencing, etc. that allows more flexibility in terms of working hours and places of work.”
The problem of unemployed graduates is one of the most pressing issues, he admitted. “But this happens in all the advanced countries also, like in the United Kingdom. In Australia where there are graduates who cannot get employment, they have graduate workers in the hotel industry, in the mines and so on.”
The problem is exaggerated in Malaysia because of our plantation sector, which is still very big, Dr Fong explained.
“We need about 500,000 to 600,000 workers. Many of our SMEs have not upgraded themselves, and are therefore still dependent on labour, including foreign labour.”
Many of our service establishments, like the warung and the nasi kandar shop, and so on, are also still dependent on labour, he pointed out. Having food courts like the ones in Singapore and Japan may help to reduce such dependence on labour, he said.
Food courts in Singapore, Japan and Australia use mechanical means of serving food, Dr Fong said.
“They use industrial kitchens and that kind of thing. We have to look towards that kind of set-up, because our country now, our workforce and talent are not appropriate for the labour intensive way.”
It would mean leaving behind a traditional way of life, he conceded, “but we have to because we don’t have the traditional supply of labour. Instead of using foreign labour to work as cooks, if we reorganise operations, we can get even graduates to be operators in food courts. In that sense, we create a lot of job opportunities appropriate for manpower at the higher level, including graduates.”
Lack of skills has been identified as one of the major causes of the graduate unemployment, and Dr Fong is very cognisant of this fact.
“I've had discussions with the Higher Education Ministry and we thought that the approach started by Australia is very effective. University students, particularly those in traditional art areas, and even in pure sciences where jobs are difficult to come by, are encouraged to enrol in courses sponsored by TAFE (Training and Further Education).
“TAFE are job-based courses, and students attend courses on cookery and so on. That is one direction that we should look at. While allowing university students to pursue their academic interests – sociology, astronomy or whatever – in the meantime we have a parallel programme, which ensures that they have some skills that are needed immediately by the labour market.
“In Malaysia, we have a lot of vacancies in the services sector, tourism, hospitality, sales, and public relations.”
Dr Fong stressed that taking up jobs like waiters or bellboys is not demeaning.
It’s a skill. It’s not easy to be a good waiter. It requires a lot of training, a lot of people skills.
“Graduates should look at it as skills training because when they become managers, then they would understand the problems and know what to do.”
Considering that Malaysia continues to attract foreign investments, there is good prospect for employment in this country.
“In terms of FDI, in the Far East we are second after China,” Dr Fong said.
“We are still very attractive for FDI. The major reason why we are attractive is that our infrastructure is in place. But we increasingly lose out on availability of skilled labour.”