At the peak of the pandemic, 826,100 Malaysians (5.2% unemployment rate) were out of jobs and many of them were fresh graduates. At the same time, migrant workers were forced to leave the country and was denied entry back. Additionally, businesses froze hiring of migrant workers.
Fast forward to now, the economy is slowly picking up speed with industries reopening two years later.
The lack of manpower has led to 2,000 mamaks closing down at the start of 2021. Despite opening up opportunities for the local workforce, there were limited takers.
We put up posters at members’ restaurants calling on locals to apply, but the response has been cold. The ones who come for the job are senior citizens who are short of money or foreigners who ran away from their employers in other sectors such as farm labour or immigrants. – Datuk Jawahar Ali Taib Khan, President Of Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Entrepreneurs Association (PRESMA)
Industries such as F&B, manufacturing and construction have formerly been categorised as the 3D industry.
The 3D industry involves Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult work. Conventionally, the hires are often migrant workers.
Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) suggested the re-establishment of a special quota for migrant workers to fill in the vacancies.
While employers are eager to quickly recover their businesses, they are frustrated at not being able to recruit necessary workers because locals are not interested in filling up the vacancies for work performed by foreign workers. Employers have exhausted all avenues to recruit the necessary workers. – Datuk Dr Syed Hussain Syed Husman, president of Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF)
The predicament of the 3D sector being undesirable to Malaysians is not a novel topic. Some had even commented that Malaysians are too high-nosed and choosy when seeking a job.
However, the perspective of picky Malaysians is also not entirely true. It was found that during the pandemic, Malaysians were willing to take up positions as long as there was an income in return.
I don’t agree when people say Malaysians are picky when it comes to choosing a job. There are many locals who would take up any job, including 3D ones, even if it has nothing to do with their qualifications. – Mohd Effendy Abdul Ghani, Malaysian Trades Union Congress deputy president 
Take, for example, the story of Mohd Haniff MA Shamsuddin, a former human resources manager who was willing to work at a stall at Petaling Jaya Old Town wet market.
It didn’t take long to find a job. The difference is whether you want it or not. As I have a family, I needed to do this because I have responsibilities. – Mohd Haniff MA Shamsuddin, a former HR manager who worked as a butcher
However, Mohd Haniff was offered his previous job by his ex-employer with better pay and quit his work at the meat stall.
On the other hand, a diploma holder, Ain Farhana, made the news in 2016, where her story of choosing to be cleaner as a profession was awe-inspiring. Despite holding a job at a firm in Damansara, she decided to quit her position and returned to work as a cleaner.
Thing is, there was no mentor for me to learn about my office job. And you will not be ikhlas (sincere) when you do your job if you’re unhappy with the working conditions and demands. So I turned the job down and continued being a cleaner at RapidKL again. – Ain Farhana believed there is no job too small
Down the road, Ain attended an interview organised by RapidKL and managed to secure a job as a technical assistant.
With the stories of Mohd Haniff and Ain Farhana, it isn’t just what is stopping Malaysians from taking 3Ds when push comes to shove. But it is also a question of why Malaysians won’t remain in the jobs.
The Malaysian Dream of An Office Job
When we were younger, one of the threats or chides that our parents would often say is, “Study hard, if not, you’ll end up being a cleaner or an orang kutip sampah.”
Hospital sanitation cleaners place themselves at risk every day, with medical waste to ensure the hospital is clean – but we discredit them.
The irony is these professions are essential to society and without them, our neighbourhood would likely be filthy and downtrodden.
Why do these stigmas persist?
The perpetuating stigma lies in the dignity we place on 3D professions – success to many is in an air-conditioned office and those that do not fit this category – are unsuccessful.
Experts have proposed to rebrand the jobs in the 3D sector. By renaming jobs like ‘garbage collector’ to ’waste engineer’.
Elementary occupations in general have branding problems. Most Malaysians still think of menial jobs such as cleaner, domestic helper, farmers and sanitarian are jobs only for the poor and lower-class groups. To solve this problem, rebranding is of utmost importance. – Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan, Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF)
The suggestions also included destigmatising the jobs, providing better wages, an upgrade from the RM1,200 and Muar MP, Syed Saddiq has proposed for blue-collared workers to be compensated with a minimum wage of RM 1,500 in 2021.
Could Higher Wage Solve The Problem?
During the pandemic, there were reports that school cleaners saw their income being slashed 40-60%, leading the employees to earn RM600 to RM700 per month. Security guards working with the government earn RM1205 to RM 2,939 with an RM80 yearly increment. A plantation harvester on average receive an income of RM1405 monthly in 2021.
Heeding market demand, companies have increased the remunerations for 3D jobs to attract more Malaysians to apply and be part of the industry. For example, in the plantation sector, a harvester is given better remuneration.
The salary of harvesters could reach around RM2,500 with accommodation provided, and this should be widely publicised. – Jufitri Joha, president of Malaysian Youth Council (MBM)
Despite the decent wages offered, such openings did not attract many unemployed Malaysians. Perhaps, the wage is not the only deciding factor. Such roles put employees at greater physical risk – for example, health issues from chemical or pesticide exposure or high risk of injury in manufacturing work.
But if the environment is not conducive and they have to survive on a minimum wage of RM1,200 to RM1,500 in the coming 10 years… that isn’t fair, especially when many are overqualified for the job. – Mohd Effendy Abdul Ghani, Malaysian Trades Union Congress deputy president 
However, with the pandemic and the increased inflation rate, it is more than likely that the figures have grown exponentially.
The monthly earnings and the projected figures by BNM shows a significant difference. With a maximum monthly earning of RM1,500, how could a sole breadwinner feed their household?
The Nature Of 3D Jobs
Money is not the only factor of locals refusing to be part of the 3D sector. Sometimes workers in the sector are overqualified. The nature of the 3D jobs may also be unsuited to skilled and semi-skilled due to the physical demands of the offered jobs.
They come and go and don’t seem serious enough to keep the job despite the (Covid-19) pandemic leaving thousands unemployed. – Wan Imran Alim, textile factory owner 
A Malaysian is also able to shift jobs easily as there are other opportunities out there.
In order to convert a white-collar worker to a blue-collar worker, he needs to be desperate in the absolute need to feed his family. Otherwise, he will try all other options. Former white-collar workers would rather become Grab driver than do a 3D job. They probably can get the same amount of money for less effort… – Carmelo Ferlito, Centre for Market Education Malaysia CEO
Sometimes their skill sets do not match the employers’ criteria.
The locals are only able to work half the usual load a migrant worker can do. So I’m actually short of 8 workers instead of 6 because it takes 2 local workers to complete 1 migrant worker’s job load. – Federation of Vegetable Sellers Association Malaysia president Chong Tek Keong
Local traders have also shared that local workers’ work performance pales in comparison to migrant workers.
Some of the migrant workers I’ve hired have been working for me for 15 years and they have been a good help to me. They are willing to work long hours and they can multitask. – Ms Lau, third-generation trader 
Treatment Of Workers And Denied Benefits
The locals involved in 3D jobs in the past did not fare any better.
I contracted Covid-19 at work but instead of providing aid, my former employer decided to cut RM300 from my salary. I didn’t mind the hard labour, as beggars like me can’t be choosers, but I would have stayed if the employer was fair. – Aditya Akasha, a Malaysian who worked as a construction worker for 7 months before quitting 
Take a leaf out of the plights of the hospital cleaners in Batu Gajah.
At the height of the pandemic, they fought for better remuneration from their meagre amount of RM1250 despite working for years in the sector. Being passed over to various sub-contractors, only one raised their wage from RM 1200 to RM 1250.
As a repercussion for speaking up, some of the hospital cleaners were laid off.
But, Low-Income Earners Have Wants Too
There is no discourse when it comes to 3D jobs without chiding that Malaysians perceive the jobs as undesirable because of their social stigma. But, some Malaysians are willing to do 3D jobs for an honest living.
Why are Malaysians hesitant to take up jobs in 3D jobs is a multi-layered discussion, and it also cuts into how migrant workers in the 3D jobs have been observed to be treated. Would rebranding the jobs as previously suggested by the MEF president solve the problem when mistreatment and low wages persist in the sector?
Perhaps, the expectation of various bodies for Malaysians to not be choosers when it comes to jobs require a further revision on the job market itself whether it is catered equally for the low-skilled, semi-skilled and skilled job seekers.
Further, being a part of 3D jobs perhaps doesn’t fulfil the need for growth in terms of career progression Malaysian aspires to.
But, one thing that is true as we wait for systemic changes and can be done by each one of us is to treat our Mamak workers, with kindness. The kakak cleaner isn’t supposed to be an exemplary story of failure, but rather should be given respect, as she is also an integral part of society.
Perhaps, if we could rebrand how we look at the dignity of the jobs, the tide of change would follow suit when it comes to the 3D sector. In the future, maybe there would be no job too dirty, difficult and dangerous for any of us.
Explore our sources:
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