IT may feel like there is not much to celebrate on this year’s International Workers Day, which is also known as Labour Day and May Day. Headlines about thousands without jobs in Malaysia paint a pretty bleak picture. Last year, 38,499 people lost their source of income, according to the Human Resources Ministry. In January, 5,009 people were retrenched. It appears that the unemployment stats will grow, as observers expect more job cuts this year if the economy does not pick up. And yet, this is the time to be positive as we reflect on the purpose of the Workers Day holiday, which is to honour the achievements of workers around the world. Malaysia began observing the holiday in 1972, and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) expects to gather at least 10,000 people for a Workers Day rally this year to call for better rights for workers.
History informs us that labour organisations in many parts of the globe have successfully fought for the humane working conditions that many now take for granted, laws against the exploitation of child labour, better wages and pensions, paid vacations and shorter work days, equality at the workplace, sick and maternity leave, occupational safety standards, compensation for injured workers and statutory holidays, such as Workers Day, that we all enjoy. Some say unions have served their purpose and there is no longer a need for them in the current “enlightened times”, but that is another story. We have a lot to thank the labour movement for when we think about the social safety net that catches many workers who are killed on the job and injured in work-related accidents. They and their families would have been condemned to charity and extreme poverty in the days prior to the establishment of Workers Day. However, the workplace is far from perfect and more needs to be done to improve conditions at work, as MTUC consistently reminds us.
Today’s workforce has to grapple with challenges associated with a slower economy, among other issues. Recent lay-offs in the oil and gas, as well as aviation, sectors have forced many to change lanes. Retrenched workers and fresh graduates are now taking on jobs unrelated to their fields of expertise and study. Those with engineering, law and medical degrees are pursuing artistic and entrepreneurial professions. The trend is set to continue as there are fewer job openings this year. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, say human resource experts, adding that the skills developed from one’s studies are usually applicable in other fields. And, candidates with English proficiency and a good attitude have an edge over others. There is life after retrenchment, but those affected must remain positive and be open to the possibility of being in a new line of work. It is crucial that they keep up with the job search process. Historically, Workers Day was a day for unions to show their solidarity with the working population. Why don’t we embrace that spirit today to show our support for and reassure one another that we will get through this crisis together, just as we have withstood other difficult times?
* This article was published on May 1, 2016