Govt should not ignore UN poverty rate findings, says MTUC

The current minimum wage of RM1,100 per month is not a liveable one under prevailing living conditions, according to sec-gen

By NG MIN SHEN / Pic By MUHD AMIN NAHARUL

THE government should not dismiss the recent findings by a United Nations (UN) human rights expert which claimed Malaysia’s poverty rate is much higher than what official statistics show, said the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC).

“Poverty is uniquely connected to different causes, which could result in dire consequences if the government does not address it truthfully.

“The UN rapporteur’s finding has been consistent with the MTUC’s stand all along that the government has not been using the real factors on the ground currently to assess actual poverty. It is way off tangent,” MTUC secretary general J Solomon (picture) said in a statement yesterday.

UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston said last Friday that the actual poverty rates in Malaysia are “much higher than official figures suggest”. Malaysia’s official poverty rate fell from 49% in 1970 to 0.4% in 2016.

However, the national poverty line of RM980 per household per month would see an urban family of four surviving on RM8, or less than US$2, per person daily.

“This is a tragically low line for a country on the cusp of attaining high income status, especially since a range of rigorous independent analyses have suggested a more realistic poverty rate of 16% to 20%, and about 9% of households survive on less than RM2,000 per month,” Alston had said.

Based on the above, approximately five million workers at least are earning below the poverty line, Solomon said.

“As pointed out by the expert, not only is the national poverty line of RM980 per month ridiculous, especially in the urban areas, it is also totally unliveable. The truth is, wages are tied to poverty in any country,” he said, noting that official data on poverty reduction relied on outdated measures that do not consider the rising cost of living.

Solomon welcomed Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s assurance that the government would relook into the poverty rate, adding that it should study the effect of low wages as these are directly linked to poverty rates.

He said the current minimum wage of RM1,100 per month is not a liveable one under prevailing living conditions.

“To address the situation, the minimum wage has to be raised substantially. The government should stop giving excuses that it will cause inflation by doing so,” Solomon said, adding that this often-cited argument is “flawed and baseless”.

He also said an “urgent review” of Malaysia’s economic policies is required, as “certain communities were being obviously left out” due to an inequitable distribution of income and wealth.

Alston — who recently concluded an 11-day visit to Malaysia — said despite near-universal healthcare, high school enrolment rates for citizens and a growing economy, many people living above the official poverty line in Malaysia are, in fact, in poverty.

“The government should urgently revise the way it measures poverty to bring it into line with the country’s cost of living, and it should include vulnerable non-citizen groups in the new measure. It should also stop arbitrarily withholding information that is crucial to understanding poverty and inequality, such as household survey microdata,” Alston stated.

Poor people in Malaysia also suffer disproportionate violations of their civil and political rights, including in prisons and the legal system. Non-citizens such as migrants, refugees and stateless people face barriers to education, healthcare and work, yet are systematically excluded from official poverty statistics.

Meanwhile, indigenous peoples suffer much higher rates of poverty despite government commitments to ensure their rights, with their customary land remaining under siege and thus jeopardising their livelihoods, food security and access to traditional medicine.

Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali said Malaysia is “disappointed” by Alston’s remarks, while the ministry stands by the absolute poverty rate of 0.4% of total households in 2016 or 24,700 households.

In a statement last Friday, Azmin said the measures used to calculate the poverty rate included internationally accepted standards based on a UN-published handbook, as well as basic requirements for households to live healthily and actively.

However, Solomon said the handbook used is not credible as it was issued in 2011. The cost of living in Malaysia has risen steeply over the last seven years, while wages have stood still for most.

“Azmin also admits that 12% of the operating national budget was for subsidies and social support. This shows that the wages were not sufficient to meet the rise in prices in every aspect of the people’s lives,” he said.

Solomon also warned that if politicians continue to ignore the voices of the working class, this could result in the birth of a new Labour Party as the eventual ultimate answer to serve the interests of the 15 million workers whose families form the remaining population of Malaysia.