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LINES OF THOUGHT ACROSS SOUTHEAST ASIA

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Opinion

J&T protest reveals Malaysians’ lack of empathy for low-wage workers

Despite J&T workers apologising for throwing packages around, the public’s condemning reaction in Malaysia has demonstrated a lack of empathy for low-wage workers in the face of economic hardship, the pandemic and low-wage exploitation

Written By:
February 11, 2021
J&T protest reveals Malaysians’ lack of empathy for low-wage workers
Workers dry gloves with machines during a raid over squalid housing and living conditions on a glove-maker factory in Kajang, outside Kuala Lumpur on December 21 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE/Fazry Ismail

During the pandemic lockdown back in 2020, Malaysians were applauding delivery workers as ‘national heroes’, trending the hashtags #KitaJagaKita (the people care for each other) to voice solidarity among the people. 

But the situation altered drastically earlier this week after workers of courier service company J&T organised a strike at a facility in the state of Perak to protest wage cuts. 

According to the workers, J&T reduced part-time riders’ commission by more than half, from RM1.50 ($0.37) to RM0.60 ($0.15) per parcel, though some workers have claimed their commission has been slashed to RM0.30. Twitter users circulated supposedly leaked memos from J&T with the reduced commision rates detailed in a table. 

During their short-lived strike, a video of workers throwing parcels around the warehouse and expressing their dissatisfaction surfaced on social media, causing uproar among netizens worried about their packages. Many users branded the act “uncivilised” or commented the workers were “protesting the wrong way”. Some of the workers themselves have since apologised to the company and customers for the mishandling of parcels in a video published by J&T, adding that they were not short-changed by the company.

J&T as a whole officially denies reducing wages, stating in a release that the company had not cut wages but had instead issued annual bonuses to staff, some of whom received less money related to their length of employment. In the release, which doesn’t address the claims of per-parcel commission cuts, the company said the uneven amounts had caused confusion and anger among the workers.

If the matter was simply an internal misunderstanding, there wouldn’t need to be much need for comment. But the protests, whether the initial grievance was based on concerns that turned out to be legitimate or not, reveals a lot about our attitude to low-wage workers in Malaysia.

A screenshot of the video showing J&T workers handling parcels in a warehouse in Perak. Screenshot: Twitter/@ixzulazim

Protests are the voices of the unheard, and if we show appreciation for these essential workers, we should be consistent with our stance and support them through thick and thin, not abandon them when their actions are inconvenient to us. This is even more true when their livelihoods are being threatened by employers who made a booming business recently during the pandemic. You should support them because you value them as human beings that are incomparable to property. 

An egregious example of booming business and terrible workers rights was shown in a recent investigation of Malaysian producers of medical gloves. A vital resource that has boomed during a viral outbreak, they found “appalling” situations pushing workers, many of whom are migrants with precarious legal status, to work longer and harder than ever in unsafe industrial settings not safeguarded against the spread of Covid-19. Their findings raise serious questions of exploitation in an industry already identified by the Malaysian government as prone to modern slavery in the form of debt bondage.

Government authorities and business owners are equally guilty of keeping wages low for Malaysian workers. According to the National Wages Consultative Council Act 2011, the minimum wage should be reviewed at least every two years. But in 2019 the Malaysia Employers Federation opposed the increase of minimum wage to RM1,200 in 57 cities, despite a rise of RM100 only translating to an additional RM0.48 per hour. The federation has been actively suppressing a wage increase since 2010, citing debunked claims that 300,000 businesses will go bankrupt if implemented.

By comparison, the Poverty Line Income in Malaysia was only reviewed to RM2,208 per household in 2019 from the grossly outdated RM980 index used for the past decades to determine a minimum wage. Wage growth among low-income earners has been sluggish, despite drastic rise in living costs and housing prices

These wage issues are only going to worsen the longer the pandemic continues. Unemployment rate soared to 4.3%, hitting a 30-year high with an estimated 670,200 persons losing their jobs. 

How do you expect workers to perform their jobs well and coddle your parcel like babies if they are only paid slightly above the minimum wage of RM1,200 working excruciating long hours?

Though pandemic has created a labour drought for some, others, such as parcel handlers and other essential staff, have been flooded with additional work. Back in the parcel industry, besides the recent wage dispute, J&T handlers have spoken of excruciating working conditions during the pandemic due to heavy volume of up to 200,000 packages per day, a load J&T has acknowledged as a stretch for its workforce. The handlers claim the wave of e-commerce related shipping requires extra hours without overtime pay. 

How do you expect workers to perform their jobs well and coddle your parcel like babies if they are only paid slightly above the minimum wage of RM1,200 working excruciating long hours?

Protesting and strikes can manifest in various forms, not just more passive ways such as being absent from work. Oppressed workers around the world have always staged collective protests or strikes against unfair working conditions.

Last month, a food delivery worker in the Chinese city of Taizhou set himself alight in a protest over wages against food delivery giant Ele.me. The company eventually promised to implement safety upgrades. Last year, Foodpanda Malaysia delivery riders organised a nationwide strike against unfair compensation schemes by refusing to pick up delivery orders. 

To mobilise collective bargaining power, strike tactics need to be bold enough to overcome existing structures and garner enough attention among the workers and also from the public. Denying workers a living wage and fair compensation is an act of violence itself. Who are we to tell workers what is the right or wrong way to protest? 

There are Malaysians asking J&T workers to submit complaints to authorities and go through ‘legal’ means. Malaysia lacks strong union organisations and labour laws, meaning going through the ‘legal’ way is a long and tedious process, also unlikely to succeed.

Workers seen as low or unskilled labour are often belittled and despised, and to claim these workers do not know better or understand the right way of protesting is a classist notion that denigrates their capacity and agency to make rational decisions. It also neatly avoids the necessity to make a thorough evaluation of systemic conditions that caused such actions.

For those who claimed that consumer rights are as important as workers rights to protest, this rhetoric is no different from the reactionary “All Lives Matter” crowd during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the US. Consumers must not shift the limelight onto themselves by equating their property loss to precarious working conditions faced by the workers. There are existing mediums to claim for parcel damages, but no mechanism to compensate for the pay cuts that affects workers’ livelihoods. 

For those who told workers to just quit their jobs, this is a form of reductionism, shifting the blame from systemic problems to individuals. Labour exploitation is rampant in both the global and local economic system, and it is important that we do not belittle the grievances of those often-overlooked workers who keep the world turning, especially through pandemic. Your consumer rights will be protected as long as the workers that ship your goods enjoy fair wages and compensation.

We must realise the fact that we are not alienated from this system of labour exploitation, everyone is part of it albeit facing difficulties of different levels. In this pandemic time, in which we are all hurting badly in Malaysia, it is more important than ever to stand with the workers and pressure the company to provide fair compensation and pay.



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