WORKERS' Day was first officially celebrated in 1973 when May 1 was declared a public holiday by the then deputy prime minister in recognition of the workers' contribution to the nation's progress. In many respects, this symbolises the history of labour relations in the country. It cannot be said that Malaysian workers did not actually struggle for the benefits that they currently enjoy, but rather, like many other struggles in the country, including the fight for independence, peace characterises the journey. Within the history of the labour movement in this country, the government, through its experience with the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) strikes in 1963, realised that workers should be allowed to organise so that labour disputes can be solved without stoppages and disruptions to the economy.
Several legislation were promulgated to facilitate what were win-win compromises between employers and employees, the latter represented by their trades unions. Upon these conciliatory agreements were developed the rapid growth and economic prosperity that are this country's economic trade mark. In short, all economically productive Malaysians have consciously invested in the country's overall future. Hence, the importance of commemorating Workers' Day in a way that this awareness is truly appreciated and internalised, for nobody would knowingly seek to destroy what they have built. Malaysians must be disabused of the class notion that seeks to divide employers and employees, which gives rise to feelings of resentment.
Indeed, it is fair to suggest that already, the country is blessed with the understanding that a "winner takes all" solution is not constructive. Instead, the imperative is to accommodate the need of every citizen for gainful employment. One of the most urgent is to increase the number of women in the workforce that has been hovering beneath the 50 per cent mark forever. A good way of overcoming labour shortage in the country, which is threatening to swamp Malaysia with imported labour and all its attendant problems, is to find ways and means of releasing more women into the workforce. Flexible working hours can, therefore, be a solution to the nation's labour woes.
Fortune smiles on Malaysia. The level of education resulting from a policy of near universal education is producing the type of human capital necessary for a post-industrial economy. Given the labour shortage, more than flexible working hours though, is necessary to encourage women to remain in the workforce. Care support for children and parents is pivotal. Community crèches and care centres as well as workplace nurseries are indispensable if all potential labour is to be absorbed. Labour, the defining factor of production, cannot be taken for granted. A take-it-or-leave-it attitude by employers and the authorities is wasteful and must be immediately rectified.
NST Opinion Editorial 02 May 2014