KUALA LUMPUR – “When is this going to end?” That is the question on the minds of millions of Malaysians across the country, accompanied at times with a heavy sigh.
Just when we thought 2021 would be better than last year, the situation unfortunately turned more tense with the number of COVID-19 cases hovering between 5,000 and 6,500 daily, raising concerns from all parties in finding the right balance between lives and livelihood.
As the cases were increasing, grouses could be heard with calls to close all factories in the manufacturing sector to flatten the curve despite measures by the government to only allow economic sectors involved in essential goods and services to operate.
Although their point does make sense for curbing the spread of the virus, would this be fair if we fail to achieve a balance by also protecting the economic well-being of the people, especially the B40 (bottom 40 per cent) and M40 (middle 40 per cent) household income groups?
“It’s not fair just to put the blame on factory workers for the increasing number of cases. We are taking all the measures and complying with the standard operating procedures (SOPs) to play our part in flattening the curve,” said a factory worker, R. Uma Mageswary, 42, who lives in Selangor.
She said the challenging situation has taken a physical, mental and emotional toll on her since the pandemic began last year.
“With my salary that has been reduced to about RM2,000 per month now from RM3,000 before the pandemic, I have to take care of my three young kids aged between three to nine years old. The household expenses are all borne by me,” the single mother lamented.
“Having said that, closing down factories would not be the right choice,” she went on, adding that vaccinating people should be the top priority.
If factories are unable to operate, how would people sustain their livelihood?
According to Uma, daily lives would come to a near-halt by closing down factories as factory workers are just earning modest salaries to put food on the table.
“With a lower salary and over RM1,000 in expenses every month to support my kids, it is impossible to imagine (what would happen) if I lost the job if factories were closed temporarily,” she said.
“Therefore, if factories cannot operate, how am I going to feed my children and sustain our livelihood?” she asked.
Echoing a similar concern, Nor Azian Aidawati Ismail, 44, said as life has always been a struggle, the situation would be more critical in terms of sustaining livelihood and feeding her three kids amid this crisis if she could not continue working in the factory.
“As long as I’m able to work and make sure there is enough food on the table, I am grateful. I am also relieved that the factory I am working for is able to operate and allow me to continue working,” said the sole breadwinner of the family, as her husband lost his job three months after the first Movement Control Order (MCO) was implemented last year.
Nor Azian and her family, who live in Penang, are among those who were in the lower M40 class but have since fallen into the B40 community following the MCOs.
Despite owning a small flat unit in Bukit Mertajam, she constantly worries about getting the bills and other financial commitments settled as things are getting more expensive, especially grocery items.
“Grocery shopping previously cost me around RM200 plus each time, but it has now gone up to over RM300 with the same amount of items. Unbelievable!” she said.
SHUTTING ALL FACTORIES WILL DEVASTATE ECONOMY – FMM
Meanwhile, the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) noted that the manufacturing sector has been the pillar of economic growth, recording a positive three per cent growth in the fourth quarter of last year and continuing with a six per cent growth in the first quarter of 2021.
This was supported mainly by a robust export performance given that Malaysia continues to be a favoured manufacturing hub in the region and houses many industries that are part of global supply chains.
“It is very obvious that the manufacturing sector has been the catalyst of growth and thus operations of the manufacturing sector must continue to be supported amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” said FMM president Datuk Soh Thian Lai, adding that if all factories were not allowed to operate, the impact would be most devastating on the economy.
Meanwhile, on the issues raised by the public on permission given for factories to operate, Soh said it is unfair for the industry to be continuously singled out when it comes to workplace clusters.
According to Health Ministry data, 398,846 of the total 578,105 or 69 per cent of COVID-19 cases recorded this year up to June 19, 2021, were sporadic cases.
Meanwhile, only five to 10 per cent of the total COVID-19 positive cases are from the manufacturing sector.
“The low figures in terms of infection cases and clusters prove that factory clusters are not the major source of infections,” Soh said.
Given these circumstances, managing the entry of infections into the workplace or hostels has become more challenging despite factories being very controlled environments and have all the SOPs and preventive measures in place at the workplace as well as workers’ housing.
“With the virus in the community, it can easily come into factories especially through the asymptomatic cases. What is more frustrating is that the source of infections is often not traced back to the community but to the workplace where more workers are tested as a result of one confirmed infection.
“This, in turn, is classified as a workplace cluster by the authorities, giving rise to the misconception that the workplace is the primary source of infections,” said Soh.
On the other hand, the government has also been playing its part through a large-scale compliance operation (Ops Patuh) focusing on industrial areas nationwide to ensure compliance with the SOPs.
COMPANIES PLAY ROLE IN GETTING EMPLOYEES TESTED
Soh also noted that there are many employers that conduct periodic testing, be it targeted or mass testing of workers, at their own cost as part of their business continuity plan.
He said this has proven to be an effective method to pick up positive cases and trigger the necessary tracing, isolation and treatment protocols, thus reducing the risk of companies having to shut down operations due to mass worker infections.
This is also one of the protocols for companies that have subscribed to the [email protected] initiative by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), said Soh.
At the same time, he said, the industry is very eager to get all their workers vaccinated.
“There has been very keen interest and uptake by the industry of the recently announced Public-Private Partnership Industrial COVID-19 Immunisation Programme (PIKAS) by MITI,” he said.
It is understood that a total of 669,846 workers from 4,537 companies have registered under PIKAS as of June 27, 2021.
“It is evident that companies recognise the critical need to have their employees vaccinated to enable them to return to business operations as soon as possible given the strain that the pandemic is having on business sustainability,” Soh said.
Similarly, there is also interest for the state-level vaccination programmes such as the SelVAX in Selangor.
The recently-announced National People’s Well-Being and Economic Recovery Package (PEMULIH) also allows companies to utilise their human resource development levy to cover the cost of vaccination under PIKAS, including a tax deduction for the cost of setting up on-site vaccination centres to help defray some of the costs related to the vaccination of employees.
Employers who have registered under Human Resource Development Corp (HRD Corp) may utilise up to 10 per cent of their levy balance to purchase and administer COVID-19 vaccines for employees.
The need to get vaccinated is a pressing issue, as factory workers like Uma and Nor Azian are deeply concerned about their safety as well as their families’.
“As economic frontliners, we are in dire need of the vaccine as we are putting our family members at risk when we get home after work,” said Nor Azian.
While ensuring that life needs to continue, Uma and Nor Azian had no choice but to opt for the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) withdrawal through the i-Lestari scheme (Account 2) introduced in April 2020 and the i-Sinar facility (Account 1) in November 2020.
They would likely also opt for the latest i-Citra facility introduced by EPF recently.
These real struggles faced by Uma and Nor Azian represent only a tiny fraction of the challenges confronting the people, especially among the lower-income community.
Worse things have already started to happen, and people are in desperate need of money and jobs to sustain their lives and living hood.
The faster the vaccination process happens and herd immunity is achieved in this country, the sooner everyone will be able to go out and breathe better with the easing of their emotional and financial burdens that have been shouldered for over a year now.
The burden to assist does not solely fall on the government. The people and businesses must also play their part in reaching the targeted herd immunity while abiding by the SOPs.