Productivity myths perpetuate low incomes

Productivity is a term that is frequently used by politicians and capitalists whenever there are discussions about increase in minimum wage. Every time the Parti Sosialis Malaysia or workers networks raise the agenda for higher minimum wage, highlighting the inadequacy of the current minimum wage in Malaysia compared to rising costs, politicians and capitalists (both small and large) use productivity as a reason to object to the increase in wages.

The public’s understanding of productivity is related to a worker’s skills and capacity to perform tasks or deliver output. The proposed ways to increase productivity by capitalists include training, upskilling, and re-education. This understanding of productivity is the result of indoctrination and propaganda pushed by the wealthy and politicians, which is then internalized by the common people.

To truly understand the productivity of the working class in our country, we need to understand the economic structure of our nation. Just as colonial foreign powers acted in other countries, our country is also a former colonial nation where foreign colonizers extracted the country’s wealth for their own benefit without improving the capacity of our productive forces. After independence, although industrialization occurred, it was mostly to increase the wealth of the handful few elites, mainly during Mahathir Mohamad’s administration (1981-2003), who focused on creating a local billionaire class instead of uplifting the quality of life for all ordinary Malaysians.

Additionally, the global capitalist system is centred on maintaining wages and rights of third-world workers at a low level to ensure the profit rate of foreign investors constantly increases. The products created by these workers are sold at high prices elsewhere. Therefore, cost is kept low, income is kept high. Compared to workers in the countries where these investors come from, the wages of Malaysian workers are incredibly low. This lower value is tied to their productivity. Hence, because Malaysian workers are paid less than workers in developed countries, though the quality of work is the same, their productivity is said to be lower. Of course, the workers in developed countries are forced to pay high prices for the very products developed in the third world. This is unequal exchange that becomes the main feature of 21st century capitalism.

Today, Malaysia is a country with an economy based on foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign investment (mostly from Western countries). All policies related to workers, wages, taxes, and subsidies are merely to attract foreign investment. The quality of jobs created today is mostly semi-skilled and low-skilled work. At the same time, the education and public transportation systems require more government investment. The healthcare system is also threatened by privatization, even though the people still prefer the public system. Additionally, Malaysia is lagging behind in the care economy despite the country’s aging population.

Given the situation above, the question that we want to raise is whether it is fair to blame workers and their productivity for the issue of low wages caused by an economic structure guided by neoliberal capitalism? Following are the factors that also play roles in workers’ productivity.

  1. Employers’ willingness to invest

The readiness of employers to invest in and upgrade machinery, tools, and technology plays a crucial role in enhancing workers productivity. However, improvements in tools and technology also mean that capitalists must spend from the profits earned. Unfortunately, capitalists are only willing to do so if they perceive the potential for even higher profit margins. In such situations, it is also the responsibility of employers to provide training and upskilling for workers, but is this happening today? How many companies actively upgrade tools and technology within their companies and are ready to provide training?

  1. Access to upskilling training

When we think about access, it does not just mean money. Access also encompasses time, location, the capacity to attend classes or continuous training, and future prospects. If a worker, for example, from Kuala Ketil, Kedah, lacks future prospects to motivate them to undergo upskilling, then what is the point? Upskilling should also align with industrialisation based on modern technology and improvements in existing tools and technology. If this is not happening, suggestions for upskilling are merely empty words.

Other than that, does information and technology transfer, where local workers are given sufficient training to create and upgrade certain products, actually exist? Foreign companies in Malaysia always maintain the knowledge of Malaysian workers is at a low enough level to ensure they remain part of the production process rather than potential owners of the means of production.

  1. Wages

Malaysia is trapped in a cycle of “low wage, low profit, low productivity” as noted by MOF’s Economic Outlook 2024. The same report suggests that if workers begin to receive higher wages, it will drive productivity improvement. Additionally, the question to ask is how we can assess the productivity of workers performing cleaning, security, clerical work, operating in a small factory, and many other jobs that only pay the minimum wage of RM1500? The notion that upskilling must be done before raising wages is a fallacy and cannot be accepted. Essentially, those advocating and spreading the idea of upskilling also believe that workers performing 3D jobs are not deserving of a dignified or living wage.

  1. Pro-people basic policies

Without a strong system of education, health, public transportation, and care economics, worker productivity will indeed decline. It is illogical to expect high productivity from a worker who spends over 2 hours on the road commuting to and from work. Similarly, expecting high productivity from a worker who spends the remaining time after work on childcare and caring for elderly parents is unreasonable. A worker who does not have sufficient funds to manage their own retirement is unlikely to deliver high productivity in their job.

In an economic system where workers lack the economic and political power of capitalists and employers, it is highly unreasonable to create a narrative that suggests only workers are responsible for increasing their productivity to earn higher wages. This narrative serves as a distraction from the plight of workers and protects the interests of employers and capitalists, when in fact, the government bears significant responsibility in providing a healthy ecosystem for workers. The question we all should ask is whether the government is ready to prioritize workers over capital and raise the minimum wage to a fair level (RM2000 – RM2400).

Parti Sosialis Malaysia
Petaling Jaya Branch