Opinion: Another year, another Labour Day

By Public Opinion

May 1 is a national holiday in Malaysia. Malaysia started observing the holiday in 1972 following an announcement by the late Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Dr Ismail. In his historic speech, he hoped that the decision to observe May 1 as a national holiday would encourage the Malaysian labour movements to feel the need to be bound to the purpose of the national aspiration.

But in Malaysia there are various competing models of history by which we can view the sacrifices made by the workers towards the country’s economic and technological progress. May 1 should be the day to commemorate the contributions of ordinary Malaysian workers to the country. Without those contributions, the local and foreign companies that once invested or have been investing in Malaysia would not make huge profits. 

Unlike in Malaysia where the statutory 48 hours maximum working week is being practised, working time in most Western European countries is declining steadily. Even though many perceive that less is produced (and despite national ‘austerity’ measures and the global capitalist crisis), the result of reducing maximum working hours a week is actually the opposite; in fact, it enhances productivity. The main advantage of reducing maximum working week is to enhance the quality of life of workers.

But the period of time that workers spend daily in some Monday-to-Friday companies in Malaysia is actually at least 10 hours per day. A worker clocks in at 8:00 am and the day ends at 6:00 pm. A one-hour break is given to each worker. That means a worker actually puts in at least 45 hours per week.

Even though the company claims to practice 48-hour maximum working week, but it is still incomparable to that practised in most Western European countries (most of which invest in Malaysia to take advantage of cheap labour, while their ‘home’ employees enjoy more enlightened work policies – ed).

In another company in Malaysia, a worker clocks in at 8:30am and the day ends at 6pm. But he or she has to work another eight hours on two Saturdays each month. A one-hour break is given to each worker. That means a worker has to work for at least 46.5 hours per week in certain weeks.

Does the current labour practice make Malaysia a more developed country? What we can actually see is that Malaysia lags behind the developed world in many indicators of quality of life and purchasing power, despite the growing business of luxury goods in Kuala Lumpur. Moreover, can we expect the workers to become highly motivated with the steadily increasing prices of goods?

This is an edited version of the article first published in http://malayahistory.blogspot.com/2008/05/commemorating-labour-day-in-malaysia.html