KUALA LUMPUR: While continued economic activity expansion is expected to occur in 2023 as conditions normalise following the Covid-19 pandemic, labour market reforms must accelerate to support economic growth, said Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM).

Slack in the labour market -- shortfall in demand for labour, relative to the supply of available workers in the economy -- is expected to reduce further as well supported by continued strength in the employment recovery momentum, it said in its Economic & Monetary Review (EMR) 2022 report.

Nevertheless, the central bank said Malaysia’s labour market is still some way away from tightness, i.e. high labour utilisation.

“Specifically, there remains some degree of underutilisation, given the high labour force participation, as well as a small number of workers who have remained outside the labour force due to Covid-19, that is ‘potential’ labour force.

“This is supported in part by the gradual re-entry of foreign workers alleviating residual labour shortages,” it said.

BNM said there is some room for salaries and wages, and therefore, the income of Malaysian workers to increase before exerting significant pressure on prices.

“In fact, the ratio of Compensation of Employees (COE) to gross domestic product (GDP) declined in 2021 to 34.8 per cent, a reversal of trends observed prior to the pandemic (2020: 37.1 per cent; 2019: 35.9 per cent).

“Besides, the uneven recovery continues to impact vulnerable groups such as women, youth, and low-skilled workers,” it said.

Meanwhile, BNM said to support monetary policy considerations, the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated the expansion of the bank’s surveillance tools in assessing labour market conditions.

It said more comprehensive and nuanced assessments on overall labour market conditions contribute towards supporting evidence-based monetary policy decisions.

“Although monetary policy is primarily a countercyclical tool, it is heavily interdependent with structural policies, which affect an economy’s ability to withstand shocks.

“A sustainable recovery has a higher chance of being more enduring when it is further facilitated by complementary structural reforms,” it said.

Ensuring economic gains translate to commensurate pay

BNM opined the Covid-19 pandemic represented a critical turning point and an opportunity to address structural issues inhibiting the Malaysian labour market since before the crisis.

It said these include an over-reliance on the low-cost production model, the low creation of high-skilled jobs, and significant skills mismatches.

“Unaddressed, these issues would continue to constrain wage levels and amplify the negative impact of shocks, such as Covid-19, on households’ incomes,” it said.

Economic policies, therefore, BNM said, should be geared towards creating high-skilled and high-paying jobs through quality investments, developing a dynamic and high-calibre workforce, accelerating the adoption of technology and digitalisation, and strengthening the social protection system.

“Ultimately, we must ensure that economic gains are translated to commensurate pay for workers,” it said.

Notably, the central bank pointed out the wage-productivity linkage must be strengthened.

“We also recognised that considerable challenges remain, including low worker bargaining power and frictions in enforcing labour contracts,” it said.

BNM said the relatively muted recovery of wages observed post-pandemic emphasised the urgent need to overcome such challenges.

“The conclusion remains that Malaysia would need to accelerate reforms to ensure our long-term growth is sustainable and inclusive, in addition to building household and labour market resilience against shocks,” it added. -Bernama