Redirect migrant workers subsidy to empower women in the economy

MP SPEAKS Happy International Women’s Day.

With a sustained low oil and key commodity prices and the reduction of private consumption, our economy is set to go into a slowdown in the next one to two years. The World Bank at the end of last year revised its own projection of 4.7 percent gross domestic product (GDP) growth for 2016 and 5.0 percent for 2017 to 4.5 percent for both years. (Source: World Bank Malaysian Economic Monitor, December 2015, pg. 19) HSBC in its January 2016 report projected even a lower growth rate for 2016 at 3.6 percent.

The federal government’s own forecast is between 4-5 percent.

For every 10 women in the working age, only five are actually working

In this situation, the government should do more to create jobs and encourage women to participate in the workforce. While women made up 50 percent of our population, they are only about 40 percent of our total workforce.

Female labour force participation rate (LFPR) is also very low at about 53.6 percent. Compare this to male LFPR at 80.4 percent.

This means, for every 10 women who is in the working age only five are actually working; while for every 10 men, eight are working. In other words, we are only utilising half of our women’s power!

Empowering women is good economics

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report in 2014 confirmed “ a correlation between gender equality and GDP per capita, the level of competitiveness and human development... consistent with the theory and mounting evidence that empowering women means more efficient use of a nation’s human capital endowment and that reducing gender inequality enhances productivity and economic growth.”

McKinsey Global Institute reported that in a “full potential” scenario where women’s participation in the economy is identical to men’s, the annual global GDP in 2025 will increase upto 26 percent or US$28 trillion compared with a business-as-usual scenario. This is equivalent to the economies of US and China combined today. The report also projected an 8 percent increase in GDP for South-East Asia by 2025 in such a scenario, translating to about RM110 billion in our own economy.

Empowering women is about fairness and human rights, but it also brings real and measurable economic benefits to our country and the world.

Federal government’s priority wrong

Various researches have shown that for every dollar spent on women empowerment, there will be a multiplier effect on the family, society and the country. (See for example, ‘Investing in Women’s Employment’, International Finance Corporation - World Bank, pg. 15)

As such, it is clear that the priority of the federal government on women’s empowerment is wrong.

In the 2016 Budget, while there is a whopping RM1.1 billion increase for the Prime Minister’s Office, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry received a budget cut of about 10 percent or RM0.2 billion.

Critical key areas such as women’s health programmes were cut 100 percent to zero, while programmes under women’s development in the said ministry, including capacity building programmes were all reduced about 10 percent. Budget for the NAM Institute for the Empowerment of Women under the ministry was cut almost 33 percent.

Redirect RM33.6b ‘migrant workers subsidy’

Recently, I have said that our government lacks a strategic and data-driven human resources blueprint and hence the problem with the controversial 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers.

Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed, on the eve of the International Women’s Day, admitted that the federal migrant workers policy is to subsidise employers, and he estimated that for each migrant workers, the government is subsidising RM16,000 a year.

This means, counting only the 2.1 million documented migrant workers, our government is subsidising the private sector about RM33.6 billion a year to hire migrants!

Granted this is a form of indirect subsidy, the government should instead direct the subsidy to expanding our local workforce, so that locals are hired first, both women and men.

Employers should be incentivised to encourage and promote women’s participation in the workforce. The federal government must back up its call for greater women’s participation in the economy with real actions not rhetorics.

This means family- and women-friendly policies such as childcare services, better social security including for housewives, anti-gender discrimination laws, work-life-balance policy, etc. As such, the RM33.6 billion migrant workers subsidy should be redirected to promote and provide these support mechanism towards women’s empowerment.

STEVEN SIM CHEE KEONG is the MP for Bukit Mertajam.

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