It is with mixed feelings that Malaysians commemorate Workers Day 2020. There are the joys and the gloom. Let me begin by paying tribute and salute our nation's unsung heroes who are braving the frontlines and working tirelessly during such trying times to keep the economy going and the country safe in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Workers Day this year will also be remembered as a sombre and gloomy occasion in view of the pandemic affecting job security globally and in every nation.
The biggest concern of the approximately 15 million workers in Malaysia —both local and foreign — is the issue of job uncertainty and insecurity. They are not much concerned about their short-term prospects because of the assistance in cash and kind that they have been getting from the Government and some NGOs.
They are more concerned about their long-term prospects of securing food, shelter and clothing - for themselves and their families. Of paramount concern is their jobs. A recent survey has found that 46.6% of self-employed respondents had lost their jobs during this period of the movement control order (MCO).
The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) has cautioned that unemployment rates could reach up one to two million this year if the MCO is to be extended beyond May 12. The government's biggest challenge will be to prevent retrenchments in the coming months with the hope the pandemic woes across the world will subside.
The tourism and services sectors recorded the highest percentage of job losses. Of those who are still with jobs, a large number have had to contend with lower salaries. In terms of financial savings, over 70% of the respondents have only enough savings to last till early June.
Workers now face greater uncertainty because of the dim prospects facing many industries. It has been estimated that after the MCO ends, the industries that will be badly affected will be the retail businesses, restaurants, hospitality, travel and entertainment industries.
So what will happen to all the workers currently employed in these industries? What alternative jobs can they find? Sure, the gig economy may be able to absorb some of the newly-unemployed, but for the vast majority, the prospects are dim.
Besides jobs, the workers have other serious concerns. How will they continue to provide for their families? There are school fees to pay, rents to pay, loans to repay, medical bills to settle, and other obligations to meet.
What are their opportunities to learn a new trade, what skills do they need to turn entrepreneurs, how will they secure loans to start new businesses, what new businesses can they venture into?
All these concerns and worries will take their toll on mental and physical health. How will they cope? What relief do they have to overcome their stress and feeling of helplessness?
How will they reinvent themselves? How quickly can they adapt? Will re-education and acquiring new skills help? If so, how will they cope with the new and novel ways in which education will be rolled out?
These are concerns that the government will have to address—the sooner the better. It is of course reassuring to some extent that the government has been addressing their short-term needs adequately but it is time for the government also to pay attention to the workers' long-term concerns.
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the government has announced stimulus packages amounting to RM260bil, with RM10bil of the total amount channelled to assist the affected small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
According to the Prime Minister locking down the economy costs RM2.4bil in productivity a day.
There is an urgent need to seek a balance between further extension of the MCO and gradually easing restriction to restart economic activities.
The MCO, though essential, has greatly impacted our lives and pockets.
Irrespective of how much initiatives the government has taken to help the SMEs, it will be inadequate to meet their needs and losses.
Companies will take time to revive and many will lose their jobs.
Economists believe Malaysia may slide into an economic recession if the Covid-19 outbreak continues to worsen and the MCO is further extended.
This is precisely why it is so essential for the government to expedite the introduction of the Economic Recovery Plan and help Malaysia address the many challenges arising from MCO and Covid-19.
TAN SRI LEE LAM THYE
ALLIANCE FOR SAFE COMMUNITY