We need a targeted income support programme for B20 families

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Krishna, a 38 year old widow, called me yesterday as the LAP (Perak Water Board) had cut off her water supply – her unpaid bills amounted to RM 400. Her husband died in a road accident 5 years ago and she came to my service centre then for help in applying for SOCSO’s “survivors’ pension”. As their marriage was not registered, SOCSO only approved the RM 500 per month that was due to her son. Krishna is now living with her 6 year old son, a 25 year old niece Shamala who is stateless (because her mother had no documents), the 8 month old child of Krishna’s husband’s sister (also stateless as she was born in Singapore) and a 15 year old nephew whose mum is also in Singapore.

The MCOs (Movement Control Orders) have hit her badly. Krishna and Shamala work as dish washers in the restaurants that dot Jalan Lintang Sg Siput. These are zero hour contract jobs – you get paid if the boss needs you that day. Otherwise you go home without any pay. The current rate of pay is RM35 for an 8am to 5pm shift. Even if one manages to work 26 days the income per month is only RM910 – markedly lower than the minimum wage of RM1200. But they are in no position to complain. If they are identified as trouble makers, then none of the eating stalls would employ them. The stall owners have no problem finding dish washers. There are many women like Krishna available for hire.

Each time an MCO is enforced, the earnings of these 2 women drop. Restaurants do not need dish washers when only doing take-aways. Krishna has been trying to get a job as a hospital cleaner but there are no openings. Shamala has even more difficulty as she does not have a proper IC.

Krishna also has unpaid electricity bills and her rent (RM350/month) is in arrears. As a result of an unstable income and the need to provide for the three children, Krishna has accumulated a debt of RM5000 with a local money lender and is now paying a monthly interest of 10% on this. She had to surrender the ATM card to the account where the SOCSO survivors’ pension is deposited. The money lender takes the entire RM500 as interest on his loan.

Krishna’s situation isn’t unique. There are thousands of B20 families (of all races – this is not an Indian problem) like her all over the country whose already precarious lives have been made even more difficult by the MCOs. It impacts on their nutrition (she is having problems buying milk for the infant), health (Krishna has diabetes and has already developed a chronic ulcer in one foot) and education (they are in no position to buy a smartphone and pay for the data for Krishna’s nephew’s online education).

There is no point in piously saying “kita jaga kita” if we do not address the reality that the MCOs affect different strata of the population differently. Pensioners like me are inconvenienced by travel restrictions but our income is assured. Government staff are similarly protected. Formal workers in the private sector are on the whole fairly well supported by the job subsidy schemes and have the option of withdrawing part of their EPF savings. But many workers in the informal sector experience a significant drop in their income. A study by UNICEF in KL found that about half of the 500 B20 families they surveyed suffered a 30% or larger drop in income during the first MCO with half of them having a household income of less than RM1000 per month.

Daily paid workers like Krishna, operators of small stalls and others in the informal sector are the worst affected by the MCOs and there is a need to provide them targeted financial support. Giving a BRIM like payment twice a year isn’t enough. They will continue sinking into debt and be forced to cut back on even essential needs such as food and health care.

Parti Sosialis Malaysia has been calling for a targeted income support programme for families where neither parent is a government servant or a current EPF/SOCSO contributor. We estimate that there are about 750,000 families (10% of the total number of households in Malaysia) in this category. A cash transfer of RM500 per month to the mother in these families would require an outlay of RM 375 million per month or RM4.5 billion per year. This is a significant sum, but it is much less than the RM 10 billion that has been utilized for each round of Bantuan Prihatin Rakyat payments paid out to about 10 million recipients each time (three rounds so far). Pensioners, government servants and formal sector workers also receive these payments though many of them have not suffered a drop in their incomes. Families like Krishna’s require much more. A targeted income support programme would be a great help to these families. In addition, it would enhance the income of small stall operators by providing a deeper market for them.

“Kita jaga kita” is an excellent slogan. Let’s lobby our MPs and the government to walk the talk by implementing this targeted income support programme. It appears likely that we might need MCOs on and off for the coming year given the slow pace of the vaccination programme, vaccine hesitancy in a section of the population, the spread of the pandemic to our 5 million strong undocumented migrant population and the likelihood that we might be faced with new variants of Covid 19 that are not neutralized by the antibodies evoked by the current vaccines. We need to ensure that those most adversely impacted by the MCOs are given the support they need.

Jeyakumar Devaraj
Parti Sosialis Malaysia

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