If Industries Are The Spine Of The Economy, Then Workers Are The Backbone That Hold It Together. As such, it is important that the workforce is strong and resilient so as to provide better support for industries and the economy. In Malaysia, the task of doing so falls on the shoulders of the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR), which is responsible for developing and enacting policies to develop, enhance and safeguard workers in Malaysia. And at the helm of this vital Ministry is the Minister YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan who is steering MOHR in facing and overcoming present and future challenges.
Speaking to International Business Review (IBR) almost one year since his appointment as Minister on 10 March 2020, YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan reflects on the challenges and achievements of MOHR and his vision for its road ahead.
It was very much a baptism of fire. When he took office, Malaysia and the world at large was focused on fighting the effects (health, social and economic) of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had recently broken out. In the country, this was exacerbated by the imposition of the Movement Control Order (MCO) on 18 March, just over a week from the time he assumed his portfolio.
Needless to say, the MCO thrust the MOHR into the frontline as the restrictions on movement and work affected businesses and employees. It also necessitated a shift in the Ministry’s focus to ensuring a balance between health and livelihood, as the country strove to address the health crisis without sliding into a socio-economic crisis.
While the effects of the lockdown was hard on many businesses and their employees, there is no doubt that things could have been much worse. And that it was not so is to the credit of YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan and his team at the MOHR who responded to the MCO with haste and urgency.
Recalling that time, YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan revealed, “Our (MOHR) immediate action was to set up a call centre to answer questions rated to labour, such as the rights of employers and employees, on leaves, salaries and working hours during the MCO, and about SOPs.”
The speed at which the MOHR set up this call centre, as well as in responding to similar enquiries via email, helped clear up a lot of confusion and uncertainty. And given that the MCO was a major step into the unknown, giving such clarity was a definite boon for both employers and employees.
Protecting Jobs and Businesses
Given the circumstances, it is no surprise that the main highlights of YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan’s first year in office have been how the MOHR has managed to address the problems caused by the crisis.
For instance, the lockdown and the subsequent economic impact caused a lot of companies to experience a drop in revenue because of reduced operations. This in turn affected their ability to pay their staff, which meant that there was a risk of them letting go of workers. At the same time, some businesses had to shutter for the duration of the MCO, which meant that workers had to be put on unpaid leave.
In order to alleviate the situation, the MOHR through PERKESO (Social Security Association) introduced the Wage Subsidy Programme and the Employee Retention Programme.
Under the former, private sector companies could apply for subsidies to help pay the wages of staff. This was applicable to businesses that suffered a 30 percent year-on-year loss in sales or revenue from 2019 to 2020, and only employees earning less than RM4,000 a month were eligible. In return for this aid, companies were forbidden from retrenching staff earning less than RM4,000 a month.
Similarly, the Employee Retention Programme helped workers who were placed on unpaid leave get through the difficult times by providing them with an allowance of RM600 per month. The criteria is that their period of unpaid leave had to be longer than 30 days and the tenure of the aid would not be for more than six months.
The upshot of these initiatives (as well as others) was that around 2.7 million jobs were saved. Given that the workforce in Malaysia numbers around 15 million plus people, this meant that the MOHR managed to prevent nearly 20 percent of workers from losing their jobs. At the same time, they helped 300,000 businesses stay afloat. This was a significant achievement in maintaining socio-economic stability during the crisis.
For YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan, the key to the MOHR’s success during this trying period was passion. As he tells IBR, “Helping the nation and the rakyat is something very close to my heart, and I am very happy to be part of the government during this crucial period.”
Future Proofing the Workforce
Despite MOHR’s best efforts, it was inevitable that the economic downturn would have resulted in people losing their jobs. Presently, Malaysia’s unemployment rate stands at around 4.5 percent or more than 800,000 people – the highest ever percentage in more than 30 years.
The onus was on the MOHR to address this issue. And one way it has done so was to step up training efforts by upskilling and reskilling the workers (particularly those who had been retrenched) in order to enhance their employability.
That being said, the MOHR’s efforts in upskilling and reskilling the workforce started long before the COVID-19 crisis, spurred on by the advent of Industry 4.0 (I4.0), digitalisation and automation. The events of the past year however have only heightened the urgency of future proofing Malaysia’s human capital.
In June 2020, the MOHR – through the Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF) – launched the PENJANA HRDF initiative to spearhead the training, reskilling and upskilling of retrenched workers as well as school leavers and graduates, as well as to secure job placements and help them earn a living.
There are five schemes under PENJANA HRDF, each catering to a particular group and with a specific target in mind. These are the Place & Train scheme, the Industry 4.0 scheme, the B40 Development scheme, the GIG scheme and the SME scheme. Since its launch, a total of 18,547 people have joined PENJANA HRDF’s schemes.
At the same time, the MOHR has also been revising the training system in the country. This includes putting more focus on work-based learning where students gain valuable hands-on experience in the work place rather than just learning everything in the lecture halls.
In addition, the MOHR is also introducing a programme known as Paperless to Paper, where people – depending on the level of education they’ve reached – can get certification, diplomas and degrees (even up to PhD). These will be attainable through programmes offered by the MOHR’s agencies and which will be designed by universities in Malaysia.
Aside from training, the MOHR has also been active in helping unemployed workers find jobs through the MYFutureJobs job matching portal. Speaking on this, YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan says, “This portal was formerly known as Jobs Malaysia. However, when I took over the Ministry, I decided to rebrand it to MYFutureJobs to give hope for the future, and we were able to create around 185,000 job opportunities in a short period of time.”
Reducing Dependency on Foreign Labour
As the Minister of Human Resources, YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan is not only responsible for just Malaysian workers but all workers in the country regardless of nationality. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, one major cluster risk were foreign workers as many of them were scattered in different accommodations. Thus, one of the proud moments of the MOHR under his watch was how it successfully screened 1.1 million out of 1.4 million foreign workers in the country for COVID-19.
As a Minister with a strong sense of responsibility, and more perhaps as a decent human being, another key moment of YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan’s time in office has been how he is leading the MOHR in clamping down on the abuse and mistreatment of foreign workers in the country.
This includes amending and ordering stricter enforcement of Act 446 to ensure that they receive adequate accommodation. In addition, the MOHR is also developing an app – Working for Workers – which will allow workers (both foreign and local) to report abuses or maltreatments to the authorities.
In doing so, YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan is working to wipe clean the stain on Malaysia’s reputation, as well as the economic backlash, that have resulted from international coverage of certain incidents in the country.
He is cognisant though of the challenges that Malaysia faces in being too dependent on foreign labour. This, he says, is a consequence of socio-economic development as more Malaysians shy away from labour-intensive work, especially when they attain higher levels of education.
He highlights that with the pandemic resulting in the closure of borders and a moratorium on the hiring of new foreign workers as well as job losses among Malaysians, people should consider working in sectors they might find unattractive so as to earn a living.
In some ways, Malaysia’s unemployment figures is not exactly reflective of the reality on the ground. As YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan points out, there are more than 800,000 people unemployed in Malaysia and more than 1.4 million foreign workers. Therefore, if Malaysians accept the jobs that foreign workers do, then unemployment would be reduced as well as our dependency on foreign labour.
At the same time, he also reveals that the government is working on consolidating efforts to address the issue of unemployment in the country. One way was by setting up of the National Employment Council (NEC), which comprises the MOHR as well as other key Ministries such as the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Higher Education aimed at creating 500,000 jobs.
Happy Workforce, Productive Workforce
Moving forward, YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan aspires that Malaysia will continuously move towards the future of work, with a dynamic workforce that is able to respond rapidly to constant changes and development. Of course, this is already being done by the MOHR under his guidance, as evidenced in the aforementioned programmes and initiatives.
Furthermore, the MOHR is looking to further support the informal sector, particularly the gig workers such as the e-hailing drivers and delivery people. The importance of this sector was made very clear during the MCO, when they were the ones who ensured that people were able to receive food and other essentials.
YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan and the MOHR are also demonstrating that the perceived dichotomy between the interests of workers and the interests of employers is just that – a perception. The reality is that a workforce that enjoys rights and protection is a workforce that will be more productive. This will help spur economic growth, strengthen social stability and generate more revenue for businesses.
Ultimately, YB Datuk Seri M. Saravanan wants the Ministry of Human Resources to take on the identity as the Ministry of Hope”. As he points out, “I tell my senior officials that we should be happy and proud to be part of this Ministry because it is one of the very few Ministries that is directly connected to the people. And we can help people and become a new hope for them.”