By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
Tomorrow will be the dawn of a new May Day, the first (and last, hopefully) to be celebrated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many have pointed out how the nature of work has fundamentally changed due to all of the adaptations businesses had to undertake in handling the pandemic. Pundits alike have coined the term ‘A New Normal’ for the way the world would function after the pandemic has been defeated, each with their own take on what exactly this entails. The following would be mine.
Whilst leftists, rightly, have pointed out the supposedly free market fluctuating to the point of crashing without government assistance as a crisis of capitalism, I fear it is not a crisis to capitalism. What I mean by this is the conditions created by a capitalistic hegemony, rife with excessive profiteering, capital agglomeration and oppression of workers especially in the global south, may not necessarily lead to a realisation that that it is the system that needs changing. Even if this realisation does manifest, there may not be enough self-belief in common people to thrust their needs into the narrative effectively.
A Multinational Example
Time and again, the capitalist superstructure which siphons riches away from the Third World into the pockets of the wealthiest 1%, depends on the erosion of workers’ rights and manipulation of legal structures relating to capital accumulation (such as tax laws) to sustain itself. For example, giant Multinational Corporations (MNCs) rely on smaller vendor companies in the Third World for supply of parts in the manufacture of goods utilising the global supply chain. These companies rely on fulfilling service promises to the large MNC to profit, hence are pushed to minimising overheads by working their employees many more hours than they are contracted for whilst underpaying them. Benefits and bonuses are cut whilst contract staff become the norm.
When so many businesses and jobs depend upon these corporations, the sudden drastic loss of business due to an unexpected phenomenon such as the Covid-19 pandemic results in little negative impacts born by the capitalists benefitting most from the business but is quickly transferred to the working class. Suddenly, the threat of job losses manifests itself to scare workers away from organising themselves against the capitalist class oppressing them.
The increased rate of unemployment further exacerbates the matter by increasing the unemployed labour pool. This makes it so that the number of people desperate enough to accept worse offers from employers increase, thus the overall compensation to workers decreases. Combating this would necessitate greater organisation of workers in unions, which might not be so attractive an option when jobs are so hard to come by that risking losing one is a price too high to stomach.
One may think that this is temporary, that whatever worse offer only lasts until the economy recovers, after which compensation to workers will naturally get better. This fantasy of trickle-down economics, however, does not occur in real-life, or else we would not have seen measly increases in salaries coupled with massive increases in prices for essentials, such as food and housing, as we have in Malaysia. More likely is the usurpation of the Covid-19 pandemic to set a worse offer as the new normal and scale marginally from there, eventually leading to better return of capital to investors than before.
Some may say that this is to be expected. Why should businesses be accountable to taking care of peoples’ welfare at the expense of profits? After all, without them, there would be no jobs! Therein lies the rub. In the present capitalistic economy, there is an overemphasis of businesses focused on the generation of private profits such that workers’ welfare will always take a back seat. The capital owned by these businesses give them enough power to dictate terms, whether it is salaries or even taxes to be paid, and is used as a weapon against the state and people to benefit shareholders. Of course, to the shareholders, this is simply a protection of their investment.
However, we should reflect upon the fact that during the failure of the market that is usually used by these businesses to extract capital from labour, it is expected and even demanded that social structures funded by taxes be used to save themselves. The money paid by society to a centralised governing body for social work is expected to bail out businesses that, in normal times, demand instead for their profits to be left alone by society. Where is the consistency in expecting a bail-out in hard times whilst demanding individual protection of generated capital in good times? Why is the worker expected to understand the company’s hardships and to take a pay cut only for the company to not do the same for the worker?
The Way Forward
Liberasi finds that the arrangement of the economy currently and especially in Malaysia one that has and would further inevitably lead to the oppression of workers. Whereas I have mainly focused on MNCs, unfortunately many of our GLCs act the same, depending upon smaller vendor companies to cut costs and contract workers to reduce the benefits enjoyed by those working for them. We agree with Parti Sosialis Malaysia that a new deal is needed for Malaysia in this time of new normals.
We have long talked about our analysis on this, through our Proactive Reindustrialisation series, where we emphasize a strong plan of aggressive government investment in the economy is needed to move away from our reliance on private profits. However, we have also stated that this must be coupled with strong, pro-workers’-union policies and a reform of GLCs to not focus on generating private profits, rather profits that then are oriented to more job creation, better compensation for workers and bettering social needs such as healthcare.
This, of course, is easier said than done and presumes that the government would make the peoples’ welfare the main focus of their rule. What, then, can be done for now amongst common people to combat the erosion of workers’ welfare? For starters, one should understand that it is not normal for the system of excessive profiteering to rely upon uncompensated labour to function. We should begin to organise ourselves and others within our workplaces. If a union exists within our workplace, we should join it immediately and work within it. If one does not, we should work towards establishing one.
Outside of the workplace, we should still organise around issues that we care about to bring it to the forefront of political conversation that may not necessarily be a focus due to not contributing directly to profit-making. Movements for environmentalism, women’s rights and marginalised communities, for example, are all valid. Having said this, we must understand that oppression by the capitalist class cuts across all our movements, hence the class struggle must be supported by every one of us.
Only through the collaboration of all these movements towards the liberation of our people from over-reliance on capitalist organisations can we finally realise a new normal that works for the people. Covid-19 has rattled global capitalism, yes, but global capitalism is an old fox who has seen similar challenges before. It has even more tools now with the advent of modern technology to further entrench itself into the fabric of society. Let us not be idle enough to allow it.
Stay safe and Happy May Day!