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8:49pm 23/08/2022
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The tug-of-war over workers
By:Lee San

I was greeted by the warm and invigorating words of “welcome” as soon as I set my feet inside this cafe.

All of a sudden service staff at eateries seem to have displayed an unexpectedly high level of professionalism after the pandemic.

If we were to take a closer look, the workers at these cafes, eateries, hot pot shops, boutique cafes and even mini specialty shops of imported products and handphone accessory shops, are all young people in their early twenties.

Well, these traditional coffee joints and food stalls should have been manned exclusively by migrant workers in the past, but are now staffed by young Malaysians who are now personally brewing the Hainanese coffee or cooking the shredded chicken hor fun or curry noodle!

Let’s put aside the question whether these young workers are part-time students, the thing is, we have managed to put such a large army of energetic young people that know how to put on smiling faces constantly to serve their customers at the forefront of our service industry today.

What a refreshing transformation indeed!

Of course, I have to agree that this is a positive sign and win-win situation many of us might have longed to see, that kind of feeling that is instantly transporting us back to those good old days of yesteryear!

Nevertheless, back in the office my senior manager reported to me in a tensed-up tone: Several of our staff have been poached!

I was perplexed, querying: How come? I thought our team members have said they have found a sense of belonging to this place?

The manager rushed to correct me: But they think they can’t make much money here!

I then asked again: So, are they poached by our competitors?

The manager took out his log book and read aloud: Four are poached by our competitors, three go to an online shopping company, two go to a hot pot shop, and… I myself am also thinking of going over to the travel agency on the next block.

I was dumbfounded and speechless! OMG! I never knew the local labor market had quietly started a job poaching war, and indeed a very aggressive and unashamed one!

It seems that our MPs are not the only ones expert in hopping. As a matter of fact, just as the market appears to be recovering after the pandemic, the job-hopping phenomenon is so rampant across all economic sectors on an unprecedented scale! Sure enough the highest bidders will get the workers!

This is putting a lot of pressure on many business owners, as they will have to worry much more about company cash flow and operating expenses now.

Unfortunately, this is part and parcel of the “complications” of life after the pandemic: acute labor shortage, job poachers offering attractive remunerations from 2k to 3k, 3k to 5k, 4k to 6k, and so on and so forth. All they want are real-life people who will work for them, at any cost!

So, it is no surprise that an inexperienced cafe worker could fetch upward of RM2,400 a month while a degree holder gets at least RM3,000! And I have not even mentioned other perks and benefits thrown in!

Indeed, even as the migrant workers now enjoy the minimum wage protection, don’t you think Malaysians deserve better remuneration packages?

Should I just sit here doing nothing and let them take away my staff? I should be out there getting hold of their people instead!

Business manager Chen said smilingly: Malaysians’ salaries were already too low before the pandemic, causing many to seek jobs abroad or are even duped to work as scammers in Cambodia. At the same time, we have brought in millions of cheap labor from third world countries.

Such a workplace phenomenon has been an anomaly to start with, but there’s nothing much we could do about it!

Now that the minimum wage has been raised to RM1,500 a month, our local youths should get at least 1k more, which is perfectly reasonable.

Moreover, with higher salaries, their living standards and moods will also be improved while the market gets the much needed boost! Perhaps job efficiency and service quality will also be raised proportionately. That’s why we now hear so much more “welcome” at shops!

What business owners should do now is to contemplate how to improve their products’ added values so that they can sell at better prices and make enough profits to hand out bonuses and incentives to their loyal staff.

That’s why I say, stop grumbling about the higher cost of doing business. We should learn to move with the times and prosper together with our employees!

I initially planned to talk more about the predicament currently faced by the travel and hotel industries, but after Chen’s analysis, I now think I ought to choose to forge ahead with those young people and scale new heights with them together! Right? But the thing is, Chen never mentioned whether consumers are willing to accept the reality that they have to pay more for the skyrocketing operating cost!

As you all are aware, goods prices have surged between 15 and 50% today, and the pay increment will therefore never be able to catch up with the rate of price hikes. The fact is, we are all stuck in this quagmire!

Indeed, travel agencies have finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel, but the thing is, even though we have raised the tour fees by 30% and above, air tickets, hotels, tour coaches, food and manpower cost have all gone up dramatically, causing us to suffer at least a 5% drop in our profits notwithstanding the higher fees charged to the customers!

Fortunately, our team members who stick to us have remained high-spirited in anticipation of better times ahead after the pandemic hiatus. Gambate!

Meanwhile, staring at the computer screen back in the office, I began to wonder: Should I just sit here doing nothing and let them take away my staff? I should be out there getting hold of their people instead!

Well, in this endless tug-of-war over workers, some people out there are actually anticipating a windfall pretty soon!

P/S: While I can understand people hop to a rival company or switch to a different career path mainly because of better pay, we should perhaps look back at our own corporate culture, company vision and mission, work environment as well as interpersonal relations among colleagues… Come on, don’t rush in your resignation letter; let’s have a little talk first!

(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)

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