The heroes need a raise, too!

It is now time to pay the frontliners real money for them to elevate their living standards


IN SO many ways, it was rather sad to think that it took a global pandemic for us to realise the importance of our essential workers.

We clapped and hailed them as our heroes and extended our boundless appreciation through TV commercials and social media updates.

Now that our country has made great strides in containing the virus, one question that springs to mind is, “Are we going to raise their pay for their services during the lockdown?”

The Covid-19 pandemic, which claimed some 121 lives to date in the country, has certainly exposed just how important our key workers are to ensure the proper functions of the country and the economy.

However, the most striking reality revealed to us is that, it is exactly these workers who are paid a little too low for their level of expertise and skills.

Rest assured that our sudden moral obligation towards them is appreciated, but financially, rewarding through the post-Covid-19 crisis recovery model would emerge as a real litmus test for the public and private sectors.

Still, redesigning the incentive structure to improve their livelihood isn’t easy even during pre-Covid-19. Now, it is even trickier, especially when the global pandemic is in play.

These “heroes” are mostly involved in social services. Unfortunately, the market rarely values works done for social causes — nurses, policemen, solid waste and sewerage management maintenance technicians, warehouse guy ensuring supply of medical equipment, and to name a few.

The sheer size of the labour force involved in these jobs has further obscured the determination of improving the wage of these workers.

Take Gayu (not her real name) has been clocking in as a community nurse for the past 15 years. She earns less than gross RM3,199 (net RM2,145) per month.

During the peak of the coronavirus spread, she was assigned to a makeshift tent for the testing and screening of Covid-19 patients.

For the risks she took, the RM600 special allowance for frontliners appeared as a decent compromise.

This is where the paradox presents. Typically, high-risk jobs such as Gayu’s should be matched with rewarding paychecks.

Do thousands of nurses like Gayu in the country have to look forward to a global health emergence each time before anyone could realise that they deserve all the financial incentives? No. Period.

But on a broader scale, this boils down to our country’s real wage growth that stagnated over the years on the back of irregular labour market policies, which have allowed high participation of low wage foreign workers, and businesses which focused on low-cost models that impeded the hiring process of skilled workers.

A wage growth study conducted by management consulting firm Korn Ferry concluded that real wage growth for Malaysian job holders will slip to 3.5% this year from 3.6% last year, not factoring in the unprecedented pandemic.

As wealth is becoming more concentrated in the hands of firms and not the workers, a strong push for a social model that will be inclusive for the low earners will prove to be a defining political moment for the government.

For capitalist private sectors, that typically displace workers who cannot generate significant value, efforts must be taken to expose them to the new normal training, so that they can participate more actively in the digitised infrastructure.

While we have elevated the risk and social status of our key workers during a crisis, it is now time to pay them real money for them to elevate their living standards. No, not pittance.

Priya Vasu is the assistant news editor at The Malaysian Reserve.