We should resolve our labour issues squarely

Some 20 years ago, I remember a district and road leading to the city centre of Melaka that didn't fail to attract passers-by with their rows of rambutan trees laden with scarlet fruit, and occasionally bright yellow ones as well.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of the succulent fruit were often unpicked and left to rot.

I was told that this was because the owners were old and feeble, and their children had left for big cities to earn bigger bucks.

Hence, there were few takers to harvest the fruit. I was informed that some owners were glad if outsiders offered to pick the fruit in exchange for some money and a few even gave it away.

Ever since an automotive plant was established in the district in 2003, many of the rambutan trees have disappeared after the main thoroughfare was widened.

These days, the hairy fruits seem hard to come by although demand is high.

It appears that the changed socio-economic circumstances there had also altered the rambutan landscape.

Had the tree owners worked a little harder and banded together to promote their produce, I reckon they'd still earn good income seasonally, irrespective of the widened road.

If we take a hard look at the rambutan issue, it seems to be a man-made problem due to few people tending to their trees.

This reminds me of the saying: "A problem is only a problem if you refuse to look for a solution. If you don't take action to fix it then it will remain a problem."

In a similar vein, I suspect that the labour shortages that continue to plague our country are also man-made.

Despite the economy having been opened after the ravages of Covid-19, we're still labouring over unresolved labour issues.

It's as if those responsible for managing such important matters seem oblivious to the resulting economic losses.

To put it simply, labour is needed to produce the goods and services of an economy. Therefore, getting enough people with the right skills is key to getting the economy moving.

Every day this issue is unresolved, it translates into continued misery in the many households that need domestic help.

The same goes for factories and plantations that require the manpower to move production.

We probably haven't seen the light at the end of the tunnel because of several reasons: we're either barking up the wrong tree or we seem to think what we've devised is the best solution in the world.

Or is it that we've been trying to solve the wrong problem exactly rather than trying to fix the right problem approximately?

As things stand, it appears we're still saddled by 20th-century issues like recruitment procedures, minimum wages, agents' commissions and proper living conditions.

It's not just Corporate Malaysia or SME Malaysia that need to keep up with modern-day compliance to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.

The government too has to play its part so that industry can get its act together to be compatible with stringent ESG demands.

Do take note that it's not as if we've not experienced the embarrassment of having our exports held up at foreign ports because of allegations of forced labour and other unsavoury matters.

Business owners and human resource managers can deny all they want by employing the best public relations strategists to counter the allegations.

But, it's best to address these prickly issues squarely instead of operating under a dark cloud of alleged unfairness.

Time for everyone involved to get real and move into the third decade of the 21st century!

The writer is a former Bernama chief executive officer and editor-in-chief

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times

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