MINIMUM WAGE & MEANS TESTING FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
By Dr Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser, 2 Feb 2013
The current outcry, expressed by some in the business sector, to the minimum wage for local and foreign workers brings to mind the demand for means testing (among other demands) by the major Malaysian Chinese organisations when they launched The Joint Declaration 1985 just before the 1986 general election. At the time, the Chinese associations were calling for means testing as a way to ensure social justice in the award of scholarships and loans and other “special privileges” given to the Bumiputera.
Means testing has been instituted in developed countries for years and the simple humanist and distributive logic is that on a sliding scale based on need, the poor are entitled to more than those with less need, i.e. the rich. In the countries with some elements of a welfare system, social benefits are dispensed based on means testing. Likewise, grants for tertiary education are also given out through means testing – you get a full grant if your parents’ incomes fall below a certain threshold, but the grant is proportionately reduced the higher your parents’ incomes. This is an example of a social policy designed to ensure social justice and parity for all. This point is particularly relevant to the current demand for free tertiary education in Malaysia.
When we look at other sectors in the Malaysian economy, such as housing and property, the recent decision by the Selangor State government to rescind the discounts for bumiputeras who are buying houses costing more than RM2.5 million is itself some form of means testing, although the threshold is more than a little mind-boggling – Does a bumiputera who can afford a RM1 million or RM2 million house still need and want a discount? Clearly this is a step in the right direction but it falls short of extending the criteria of means to other categories of house prices relevant to those most in need of social justice.
Social Justice for ALL Workers
Following the recent outcry by business against the minimum wage policy of RM900 for both local and foreign workers, the government has hastily reacted by creating a new levy to be borne by foreign workers. This blatantly reneges on an arrangement with foreign workers before they came to this country and SUARAM calls for the restitution of their rights and just returns. The workers’ organisations in this country have demanded a minimum wage of RM1500 for all workers because it is closer to a decent wage at this day and age.
Now, among the measures suggested for helping struggling small and medium enterprises is some form of subsidy by the government for the most deserving businesses. Here’s is where means testing can easily determine which businesses qualify for such subsidies by utilizing information furnished from the annual tax returns. Thus, with means testing we can ensure our precious national resources are invested wisely in the enterprises where they can make the biggest difference.
Clearly, to meet the democratic goal of social justice, means testing is relevant to all sectors, wherever there are claims for scholarships, discounts, subsidies and other such entitlements.
Defend All Workers’ Rights
For the 13th general election, Malaysian civil society demands that parties and candidates show a commitment social justice by defending ALL workers’ rights, whether they are Malaysian or foreign. These demands include:
1. Respecting workers’ rights and solidarity, including those of informal workers such as domestic workers by reviewing labour laws to ensure they are compatible with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention;
2. Encouraging and promoting the right of workers to unionise;
3. Legislating a progressive guaranteed minimum wage for all workers, including foreign workers;
4. Ensuring the policy on the import of migrant workers into the country does not threaten / affect the job opportunities of our local workers;
5. Abolishing the Contractor for Labour System, and restoring direct two-party employment relationship between principal/owners of workplaces and the workers that work therein;
6. Ensuring all workers are employed as regular permanent employees and enjoy all benefits including maternity rights and extended retirement age;
7. Extending equality and non-discrimination to all workers in the private sector;
8. Including workers and their trade unions as part of economic influence and decision-making, especially control of their pension funds;
9. Diverting company stock ownership and profits into employee share funds to enable workers to have a controlling stake in these companies;
10. Electing workers’ representatives to be equally represented in the management and to decide corporate decisions, including investments, technology, wages and prices.
It’s time for each and every one of us to reject any form of modern day slavery and/or discrimination, whether with maids in our homes, or employees at work and treat all workers with the respect that they deserve as partners in creating a progressive and socially just Malaysia of which we can all be truly proud to be a part of. Let us have the courage to call for means testing as a tried and proven approach in creating that future.