Let people trump profits during MCO

There have been many views on the legality and technicalities of the human resources ministry’s directive to continue payment of wages to employees during the movement control order announced on March 16.

It is safe to conclude that no law would have envisaged a situation of this nature and magnitude – a global health and economic catastrophe.

Instead of splitting hairs over technical details, the government, employers and trade unions should quickly work out what would be best in the current situation which could last for a while more.

It is unfortunate and morally repugnant that suggestions have been made for workers not to be paid during this period, or that it should be up to employers to decide whether they should be paid or not. The reality of the matter is that if workers are not paid during this period, many will be denied the basic necessities of life. Chaos and anarchy would ensue, which is not something anyone wants.

People have to take precedence over profits, and this has to show in any and all policies and efforts during this time. The likes of the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) have always held the threat of retrenchment like the sword of Damocles over the heads of employees and the government. Their position should be disregarded as, whether times are good or bad, the same argument is put forth wrapped in different packaging to suit the times and circumstances.

Businesses benefit from the infrastructure and superstructure provided by the government and the general public. Taxpayers fund the economic ecosystem, which is something that employers in Malaysia, led by MEF, seem to ignore. Businesses do not seek to provide employment as a favour to employees, to society, or for overall economic health. Their motives are almost always purely profit driven.

Any expectation that employers would volunteer to do the right thing and to look out for the overall well-being of society would fail. What is needed is government intervention which should be imposed with a strong hand. Big businesses should have no excuse not to keep their employees on the payroll. As for smaller businesses which are invariably impacted by way of cash liquidity, the government should inject cash into such businesses with a precondition that the workers be paid their wages.

The government should keep a scorecard of employers who do not act in the national interest during these times, as such businesses do not deserve and should not be accorded the benefit of facilities such as grants, tax advantages, etc. There has to be an element of reciprocity, as economic activity should benefit society and not exist so that employers can claim profit as a right.

The government’s move to allow employees to withdraw RM500 a month from their Employees Provident Fund account, while regrettable, also speaks to the point I am making here. The employees’ money is being used to stimulate the economy, which in turn benefits businesses. It is another example of the lowly-paid worker bearing a disproportionate burden during difficult times.

The majority of Malaysians depend on the government to institute measures that would help sustain them during this period. The government should not be cowed by the heavy-handed behaviour of the business lobby, but instead assume leadership with the people and the long-term economic health of the country as its objective.

Callistus Antony D’Angelus is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.