Underemployment: A Sacrifice to Survive?

By Muhammad Fadzil Anif


Public rather highlights the dilemma of “unemployment” than discussing how serious the issue is in Malaysia. To many, having a ‘job’ and getting paid are already a blessing. However, little do we know, how underemployment could heavily impact social and economic development in our country for the long run? This matter has been ongoing for a long period of time and less recognition given by authorities. Real question is, until when and who would step in and be responsible for it?


Aside from the unemployment issue, underemployment has been among the overlooked issues faced by the working individuals especially in the gig-working industry among fresh graduates and youth in Malaysia. The competition that they have to face with those who have more experience and knowledge undeniably pushes them to take the opportunities left in the semi-skilled and low-skilled occupations, causing them to ‘sacrifice’ their qualifications to survive the rising cost of living in Malaysia.


This situation clearly shows that there has not been sufficient job opportunities that are proportional to the graduates’ qualifications in the Malaysian labour market. Although there has been a forecast of downward trend in the unemployment rate compared to the previous year as reported by the MIDF Research (reduced from 3.8 per cent in 2022 to 3.5 per cent in 2023), it might have been contributed by those who decided to settle for less, accepting any kind of job that is still available. Should we be satisfied with the downward trend in the unemployment rate yet ignoring the existing and concerning issue of underemployment and low-paid jobs in Malaysia?


According to an interview carried by The Malaysian Reserve with Dr Geoffrey Williams, Dean of Malaysian University of Science and Technology’s Institute of Post-graduate Studies, we have to link the employment rate with wages, otherwise the issue of underemployment will further be neglected and it is not a good sign as the numbers suggest (See “Youth underemployment should be acknowledged, not overlooked”, J. Loh and Farah Natasya, Malay Mail, November 10, 2022). 


Thus, underemployment and low-paid jobs for overqualified individuals should not be normalised. ‘Demeaning’ the qualifications these graduates have with mismatched jobs would not only limit and waste their potentials and skills that could contribute to the economic trajectory in this country, but also force them to step out and work in other countries. For example, Singapore is among popular countries that offer Malaysians more attractive and lucrative jobs compared to Malaysian-offered jobs that were criticised for offering ‘too low’ salaries. 


Moving forward, the unity government, especially the ministries-in-charge should step forward and address this issue meticulously. Proper measures and actions need to be fulfilled in providing adequate and reasonable job opportunities. Most importantly, they need to consider providing jobs with values and worth that match with individuals’ skills, knowledge and qualifications. In achieving development in this country, the government should realise the importance of utilising our local workforce and talents to be able to pursue our re-acceleration of growth particularly in the economic and social aspects. 


MASA Notes is a collection of thoughts, ideas, and reflections from our team. They aim to provide the groundwork for further discussion, policy recommendations, and research agendas.

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