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Low-Wage Workers And Their Precarious Jobs

Currently, there are no universally accepted definitions of precarious employment. Rightfully so, as it involves various social and economic cultures in today’s working world. 

When practised, precarious employment commonly revolves around workers who have short-term or fixed-term contracts that are unregulated, inconsistent, and ultimately the opposite of acceptable working standards[1]. Workers involved are often more vulnerable, earn lower wages and face difficulties and inequality in exercising their basic rights[1].

Source: East Asia Forum

Previously, precarious employment was only associated with jobs that had occupational health and safety hazards – but now, it is analysed through careers with both work and non-work outcomes such as employment insecurity; income inadequacy; lack of rights and protection & living conditions among others[2][3].

For this reason, precarious employment is undoubtedly linked with multidimensional poverty.

Hazardous Working Conditions For Low Pay

The impacts of precarious employment vary between industries and locations. From agriculture to industrial and service sectors, workers have different experiences. A 2014 study, on precarious working conditions in Oil Palm Plantations, highlighted that majority of workers were tasked to work in remote locations for long hours at a time, with no official lunch breaks and was often left alone without the presence of supervisors[4].

Source: Malay Mail

Those who were lucky enough to work large plantations were able to receive fair wages along with other welfare facilities.

Those located at smallholdings earned roughly RM500-RM600 monthly with no additional income or benefit[4]. On top of heavy-duty & hazardous labour for long periods of time, workers are commonly subject to verbal and physical abuse by their superiors[4].

In 2020, Rohingya refugees working as construction workers were earning surprisingly high with a General Construction worker earning RM67 per day on average in 2017[5]. However, the higher wages did not guarantee safe and conducive working conditions.

Source: Free Malaysia Today

Interviews explained that workers were forced to do their job under extreme heat and lacked necessary safety standards. Not only were they prone to similar verbal and physical abuse as those in the agriculture sector, but the employers also were never held accountable for workplace injuries[5].

My work is dangerous because I work very high up. It’s very dangerous…because I don’t have anything. I don’t have my employer. If anything happens, nobody will be responsible for me. I am responsible for myself. Rohingya refugee, construction worker[5]

Whilst the pay in construction is higher, it is inconsistent and almost always late. Even with pay, there is no job security and employees can be terminated without prior notice[5]. Multiple personal stories revealed this:

I used to have problems with my boss. I worked for a month and he still didn’t pay me. – Rohingya refugee, construction worker[5]

The boss simply kicks me out from the job. Once I’m done with my job. The boss said there is no more job. I’ve been looking for another job for a while. – Rohingya refugee, construction worker[5]

Living Conditions Are Compact And Unhygienic

I don’t like (working in Malaysia). I can barely sleep…my room is too small. There are fleas and cockroaches. A lot of them, I can’t sleep.[5]

Dirty and unhygienic living quarters provided onsite by employers are often inadequate in terms of space and facilities[4][6]. The living conditions of these sites are known to be isolated, unsafe, and unsanitary. Experts have constantly commented on the lack of proper hygiene in these locations, as well as other issues such as little to no clean water to poor housing facilities [4].

Accommodation is usually overcrowded. 

A study identified that 67% of migrant employees shared a room with at least six to ten people. 24% lived with eleven or more people in an apartment and only 9% of workers shared a living space with one to five people[6].

Source: The Straits Times

The workers have a positive opinion regarding electricity, however, it was common that employers did not provide basic facilities such as fans, furniture, refrigerators, washing machines, cooking utensils, mats, and televisions[6].

Some foreign workers living there are entirely dependant on their employers to sustain their livelihoods and ensure that they continue to have legal work permits to work in Malaysia. Experts commented that these foreign workers are forced to put up with exploited living and working condition by the plantation management[4].

Who Are The Most Vulnerable? 

Whilst this line of work is extremely taxing on everyone involved, those that are most at risk are foreign workers. Usually coming to Malaysia in search of a better future for themselves, and the opportunity to earn more money for their families back home, migrant workers and refugees are definitely the most vulnerable to the outcomes of precarious employment. 

Not only are they exploited, but they are also mostly underpaid, forced into horrible living quarters but they unable to claim their rights in fear of further harassment by immigration officers. 

What Needs To Be Done

Source: The Star

Malaysia has very little information about its informal workforce. This is surprising seeing as roughly one in four Malaysians are employed informally[7].

There is a need to start collecting data on non-standard employment and to ensure that these workers are catered for. The needs of workers must be addressed via top-down changes working towards the short term and long term. This is either by the government tightening guidelines for precarious workers or providing training for alternatives altogether. 

Overall the current state of precarious employment undermines all workers involved. Not only are they met with harsh working conditions, but they are also trapped in overcrowded housing hazards. In the long term, precarious work, or work without contracts and cash-in-hand payments, makes it difficult to escape poverty. 

Low-income jobs often result in working more hours to compensate for financial insecurity. Yet the inconsistent payments and the inability to document employment history for future job prospects leave the worker unable to find better means of work. Ultimately keeping said worker trapped in multidimensional poverty.

Explore Our Sources:

  1. N. Hussein, N. A. Ishak, I. A. Hussain. (2018). Precarious Work Behaviour among Millennial Generation in Malaysia: A Preliminary Investigation. The Turkish Online Journal of Design, Art and Communication. Link.
  2. M. Quilan. C. Mayhew. P. Bohle. (2001). The global expansion of precarious employment, work disorganization, and consequences for occupational health: a review of recent research. Int J Health Serv. Link.
  3. B. Kreshpaj. et al. (2020). What is precarious employment? A systematic review of definitions and operationalizations from quantitative and qualitative studies. Scand J Work Environ Health. Link.
  4. D. Kumar. M, N. A. Ismail, N. S. Govindarajo. (2014). Way to Measure The Concept Precarious Working Conditions in Oil Palm Plantations. Link.
  5. M. Nungsari, H. Y. Chuah, S. Flanders. (2020). Poverty and precarious employment: the case of Rohingya refugee construction workers in Peninsular Malaysia. Link
  6. M. S. Uddin & A. A. Mohammed. (2020). Exploration of Migrants’ Social Life: A Case Study on Bangladeshi Temporary Contract Worker’s in Malaysia. International Journal of Human Resource Studies. Link.
  7. Department of Statistics Malaysia (2019). Press Release Informal Sector Work Force Survey Report Malaysia. Link

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