IT was late in the evening when Datuk Seri S. Saravanan (pic) sat down for a fish head curry dinner in Pudu.
Pointing to the flats around the restaurant, he said it reminded him of his childhood days in nearby Jalan Raja Muda, a working-class area of Kuala Lumpur.
“I like meeting up with friends and reporters in Sentul, Pudu and the Kampung Baru areas. I have friends in all these places. It’s to remind me of my humble background and to keep in touch with the people here.
“I had a tough childhood. My parents had financial struggles but made sure I had proper education, where I attended the SJK Jalan Fletcher Tamil school,” he said, adding he was made head prefect.
Saravanan’s father used to work as a school gardener while his mother was a housewife. However, before Saravanan could even complete secondary school, his father passed away, leaving the teenager to find work and study at the same time.
“I got a job as a clerk at MIC’s headquarters and also an office boy at one time, but I studied at every opportune time.
“The reason I’m sharing this is because I understand the difficulties of workers and wage earners. I know what it’s like because I didn’t come from a privileged background,” he said in an interview in conjunction with May Day, or Workers’ Day.
For Saravanan, this year’s May Day celebrations are most meaningful because there are many milestones for Malaysian workers, as well as our guest workers.
Topping the list is Malaysia’s move to commit itself to eradicating forced labour following the decision to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s forced labour convention known as Protocol 29.
The move essentially means effective measures will be taken to prevent forced labour, protect victims and ensure their access to justice.
Malaysia’s efforts have won international accolades for its commitment as it goes beyond workers’ protection – it also means that Malaysian exports will now be properly accorded.
But the historic ratification on March 21 in Geneva between Human Resources Minister Saravanan and ILO top officials involved plenty of work and agreements leading up to it.
It included the government’s pledge to set a minimum wage of RM1,500, a figure which has progressively grown. To be more precise, a 25% increment of the previous minimum wage.
Malaysia has also concluded its Memorandums of Understanding with Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Vietnam in the protection of migrant workers, which is crucial since these nations are the primary source of migrant workers.
Protection of workers doesn’t only mean Malaysians but also guest workers.
This nation is indebted to them, and they deserve protection and safeguard.
Not many are aware that Malaysia has fostered strategic partnerships with the United States and Britain to address forced labour and migration issues.
“I take these issues seriously and I have been stopping over in London to meet officials from the UK’s Migration and Modern Slavery Envoy and other organisations,” revealed Saravanan.
The country’s Employment Act 1955 will also be amended to include a specific provision on forced labour to allow for better enforcement and subsequent prosecution and conviction.
“We do not want errant employers to get away on legal technicalities, so we must amend these loopholes.“We have to strengthen enforcement on the Employment Act and the Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act.”
For Saravanan, without proper enforcement, the existing laws would only be there in name.
“Can you imagine, the ministry has to carry out workplace inspections at an average of 40,000 workplaces annually?
“I have personally visited the living quarters of workers, both local and migrant.
“These tycoon employers make so much money, and yet they fail to treat workers with respect and decency. It’s a shame.”
Moving forward, Saravanan is initiating a blueprint on centralised labour quarters including for migrant workers, to accord better standards and conducive living environment.
The Working For Workers (WFW) application has also been improved to allow workers to file complaints on labour-related issues, “without being given the runaround.”
“It is a digital platform for all workers to voice their concerns without fear of punishment or retribution. It is also a channel for workers to provide feedback on company practices and workplace issues,” he added. For Saravanan, it’s not just about wages and working conditions, but also about the quality of life.
He said the amendments to the Employment Act 1955, among other things, proposed for paternity leave to be increased to seven days from the current three days.
In March, the Dewan Negara approved the amendments in paternity to allow more space for male workers to manage family affairs after welcoming their newborn.
“But the eligibility will be limited to only five births, regardless of the number of wives, with the paternity leave to take effect on the day of the birth. It’s not meant for fathers with a football team,” he quipped.
In addition, the amendment also involves an increase in maternity leave from 60 to 80 days.
“This is in line with the ILO Convention. Malaysian workers can safely say that our workers’ standards are on par with international requirements,” he pointed out.
But Saravanan is just as passionate when it comes to upskilling workers through the Human Resources Development Corp, saying he is proud that it had collaborated with 1,200 training providers to offer training to over 80,000 Malaysians who were retrenched and unemployed.
“The HRD Corp also launched the Placement Centre as a one-stop virtual portal that provides jobs and income generating opportunities through job matching and placement training and development.
“Over 37,000 job opportunities have been created since it started with over 4,000 job placements and 17,000 job seekers since January,” he said, adding that HRD Corp had done a good job.
Saravanan said he called up several employers recently especially in the tourism, hospitality and F&B industries in the last few weeks, and was pleased to find out that they were re-employing.
“With borders opened, they are back in business and scrambling to fill up the vacancies.
“Many are conducting walk-in interviews and on May Day, as a Human Resources Minister, I am indeed happy. It’s not about me but about the workers,” he said.