Overworked and Underpaid: A Global Dilemma
Some 4,500 years ago one of the world’s greatest wonders was built — the pyramids in Egypt. It was once thought that 100,000 slaves laboured for decades to construct the pyramid, although different sources now disagree about the exact number. Whatever the case may be, one thing has remained constant throughout history: humans have been overworked for thousands of years, dating back to the dawn of time. Even though slavery ended 200 years ago, it still exists, hiding behind a big banner called ‘employment’.
Employees are the assets of a country, and employers are those who control the riches. The middle-class and lower-class make up a large portion of employment in all countries, however, it varies, depending on the country’s economy. In third world countries, according to modern-day definition, most of the country’s population are often exploited as labour forces with long working hours and incredibly poor compensations by other nations and their own country. But as the world is constantly progressing with advanced development, everyone appears to be chasing their tails, working double shifts a day simply to make ends meet. And if this problem is not addressed properly, it will become a serious problem for the country when its people become burnt out.
In Layman’s Terms
According to data dating back 52 years, Robert Reich, then-Labour Secretary, reported in 1995 that 8 million Americans worked two or more jobs. This instance has remained unchanged to this day. Employers expect employees to produce more output for the company without compensating for the additional hours they put in. Take Bangladesh, for example, where most of the items we buy in retail stores are made by labourers who work long hours for a monthly wage of only USD 96. With the current inflation, that equates to only RM 401.66, which is not enough for anyone to make ends meet. Even when their earnings are in the billions, fashion industries are notorious for exploiting workers from third-world nations by paying them less than the national minimum wage. After making over £580 million in revenue, the Kamanis, who run Boohoo, are one of several retailers who fail to pay their staff a reasonable minimum wage.
Overworking is a global dilemma. Indeed describes overworking as the situation when an employee feels like they have been working too hard for too long, causing them to become distressed and mentally overwhelmed. Employment has evolved to the point where it can bring emotional weariness, mental discomfort, health decline, high-stress levels, physical exhaustion, depression, insomnia, and a compromised immune system in today’s world. This simply translates to the fast-paced economy’s day-to-day work environment. People are burnt out, but they have no choice but to keep working to feed their families and to pay their rent; otherwise, destitution is the only option.
The Science Behind It
There is still no ‘1+1=2’ explanation as to why this situation keeps happening. Governments attempted to decrease the legal working hours in the years following the Industrial Revolution when Henry Ford initially established the 40-hour of labour per week for his employees, but their efforts were futile. In this shoddy economy, fewer people are doing three jobs at once while only being paid for one — and, unfortunately, these overworked people are relieved to have a job at all. Employers all around the world have had to cut back on staff after the Covid-19 lockdowns were implemented in various parts of the country, leaving millions of people jobless and without a source of income to assist them through difficult times.
Economists are still trying to figure out the root cause of this problem. People are still underpaid even when the economy is thriving and GDPs are rising, and there is no logical explanation for this. It is just the way things are. Employers expect higher productivity from their employees in order to boost revenue and profits, yet they refuse to pay for the extra hours they work. In Japan, the government discovered a phenomenon called ‘Karoshi,’ which translates to ‘death by overwork,’ in which one out of every four companies have employees working more than 80 hours each month without being compensated. In other words, these workers are providing free labour for giant corporations with stellar reputations and hefty profits.
The Young, Always the Victim
On paper, this is just plain ageism. Naturally, the minimum pay for youth is set lower in every country than the conventional National Minimum Wage (NMW), which differs by country. The biggest workforce is the youth, and their numbers are only growing. Minimum salaries for youth employment, internships, and unskilled labour forces all hurt young people in this scenario. The laws, on the other hand, argue that the reason for establishing a lower wage floor for young workers is to protect jobs. They should be paid less because they are young, unskilled, and inexperienced, and they must be taught and given a chance — or so, they argue. Employers give adequate on-the-job training and work experience in exchange for the remuneration they pay. As a result, in order to enhance production and output, employers prefer to hire older, more competent, and experienced personnel. The money spent on three youthful workers is spent on one experienced worker who can do the job efficiently while improving a company’s revenue and sales. This again leads to the overworking of the older employee.
This practice, however, also hurts the youth. When employers determine that recruiting younger people isn’t beneficial to the organisation, it creates a large gap of unemployment and unskilled workers in the future. Young people should be encouraged and motivated to work by giving them caring supervision as well as fair wages and appraisal to foster healthy competitiveness. Once the existing employers retire, this will only benefit the company and the country in the long run. The country would be in good hands since the economy will be managed by skilled and trained workers.
Minimum Wage in Challenging Industries
While work experience, qualifications, and geographic location are important, many companies and industries continue to set the bar for minimum wage at a very low level, which does not compensate individuals who have put their blood, sweat, and tears into their work. Regrettably, those who are underpaid and overworked are frequently those who provide the most to the country and economy. The food and beverage sector is a typical industry that appears on lists of the most underpaid and overworked. Cooks, chefs, sous chefs, waiters and waitresses, baristas, tearistas, cashiers, and dishwashers are among the world’s lowest-paid employees. Service crews and kitchen personnel, in particular, do not receive fair remuneration that is proportional with the amount of work and energy they put in for the long hours they spend standing in the hot kitchen cooking meals and assuring top quality for the food they sell. Additionally, some businesses do not provide free meals to their part-time employees (who make up the majority of their workforce). It would seem fair if an hour’s wage could cover their transportation and meals; unfortunately, the pay for three hours of work barely covers their dinner.
Teachers are unquestionably the backbones of every country, as they are the ones responsible for shaping the country’s future, yet they are underpaid for the amount of work they undertake for the school, students, and the country. Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated all across the world, according to several studies. The pandemic didn’t improve matters for these compassionate educators, who were still compelled to work around the clock while attempting to convey their lessons through online platforms. In several nations, education funding was slashed by roughly 65%, and teachers had to bear the cost of teaching materials using their own money. Because schools were unable to pay their teachers’ wages, some were laid off, and those who remained employed had their already low pay reduced even more by a certain percentage.
Doctors and surgeons are well compensated in the medical field, which is understandable given the huge responsibility they bear. However, they are not the only ones in charge at hospitals; healthcare workers are the pillars that keep hospitals and patients together. Many lives would be lost if they didn’t exist, but they don’t get the credit they deserve. Not only do they receive minimal acknowledgement for the work they do, but they are also given very low pay and are required to work long hours. Paramedics, nurses, medical assistants, home health aides, and contract doctors all earn low remuneration that does not correspond to the amount of work they perform. In Malaysia, a group of contract doctors who had worked tirelessly to aid COVID patients held a protest in July last year, imploring the government to provide them with permanent jobs, or they would stage a symbolic mass resignation. When these groups of doctors became tired of being treated unfairly by the government, the #HartalDoktorKontrak became widespread on Twitter.
Many more industries are guilty of underpaying and overworking their workers. Other prominent businesses include construction, where labourers work for 12 to 14 hours a day in the scorching heat of the sun for only a pittance at the end of the day. To add insult to injury, these labourers are brought in from third-world countries to work for a fraction of the national minimum wage. Bangladeshi employees, primarily in the construction business, provide a great example of this scenario, as they are paid lower than Malaysians would be paid if they were to undertake the work themselves!
Let’s Talk Statistics
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recommends employers set a benchmark of working hours for only 40 hours per week. However, as the workload grows in this fast-paced economy, many cities are beginning to extend their working hours to keep up with the pace of change. According to Kisi’s Global Work-Life Balance Index 2021, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok are the top three most overworked cities in the world, with Kuala Lumpur close behind in eighth place. This ‘Overworked Population’ is composed of full-time employees who work for more than 48 hours per working week, and Asian cities account for 60% of them. European cities, on the other hand, account for the majority of the top 10 cities with the best work-life balance. Work-Life Balance was determined by four main factors in the study: work intensity, city liveability, society and institutions, and the impacts of Covid-19.
Workplace regulations and conventions change depending on the country. While the international working week norm is set at 40 hours, several countries work up to 50 hours each week. Mexico, Costa Rica, South Korea, and the United States are among the top 10 most overworked countries in the world, according to data gathered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This list appears to illustrate that the majority of countries (except for the United States) are severely underpaid. Despite the fact that India and Bangladesh were not included on the list, Indians work for substantially longer hours than those in other parts of the world. According to an ILO report, working hours in India often extend up to 48 hours per week, and workers are the lowest paid in the world with little leisure. China comes close, with people working an average of 46 hours per week.
Malaysia does not fall far behind being overworked and underpaid. For the level of productivity that Malaysians are producing, they too are severely underpaid, as per Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM). According to the annual report from 2018, the central bank revealed that Malaysians are getting paid less than their regional peers, Singapore and South Korea. To illustrate this situation, the report entails that when the Malaysian worker produces output worth US$1000, they will be paid only US$340 for the labour.
Appreciate or Protest?
After all, no one wants to be underpaid after putting in that many hours and effort into the company. Employers should be aware that there is no win-win situation when employees are underpaid. Underpaid employees can cost a firm a lot more than they anticipate — poor performance, low morale, lack of allegiance, staff turnover, and so on. All employees will become burnt out at some time, and productivity will plummet from there. Exploiting others for labour with low wages is neither fair nor just; it borders on slavery.
Although slavery was abolished many years ago, it is still prevalent among the middle and lower classes. Working two or three jobs to make ends meet should not be acceptable to anyone. Everyone ought to be treated equally and fairly, with a wage that is appropriate with the number of hours they work.
As someone who has worked part-time in the food and beverage sector for over 4 years, I understand the physical exhaustion that comes with standing for long periods of time in a hot kitchen and only being allowed a break to eat at the end of a 6–8 hour shift. To make matters worse, the salary we receive barely covers the expense of transportation and our daily meals. Furthermore, I had the unfortunate experience of being injured while working a busy shift in the kitchen. Hot oil, about 180°, splattered all over my arm, scorching it seven ways to Sunday, and management reacted poorly to the incident. I was only reimbursed for my medical expenditures, but not for the days I was unable to work as a result of the accident. I was constantly tired and burnt out while I was working there. Weekends were spent working extra shifts to cover for those who couldn’t make it to work, and there were no meals given for the day.
My days of flipping burgers for a penny are done. However, for many others, that single burger flip determines their entire lives. We live in a very unjust economy, where people must struggle for the bare minimum and still get underpaid. Employees must be appropriately compensated for the hours they put in after all that humanity has gone through because only God knows when robots and machines would start taking over our jobs.
Written by : Balvin Dhaliwal. Edited by: Miza Alisya.