One in three young adults in KL’s low-cost flats jobless amid pandemic, new UN study shows

Syed Jaymal Zahiid
·5-min read
According to a study, one of every three young adults among the capital city’s poorest are either jobless or have given up seeking employment. — Picture by Hari Anggara
According to a study, one of every three young adults among the capital city’s poorest are either jobless or have given up seeking employment. — Picture by Hari Anggara

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 30 — One of every three young adults among the capital city’s poorest are either jobless or have given up seeking employment, a staggering rate that underscores a deepening crisis besetting the country’s most vulnerable communities amid a pandemic, a new study said.

The finding followed the second round of the “Family On The Edge” survey that sought to evaluate the socio-economic state of the capital city’s low-cost flat dwellers following the movement control order (MCO), conducted from May to September when most curbs have been lifted.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which commissioned the study with the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) and with support from the Danish government, said the unemployment rate did improve slightly during the recovery period of the MCO as more heads of households were able to return to work.

Still, certain segments like single mothers and households with disabilities, those often in the lowest rung of economic ladder, are finding it hard to find or retain jobs, with the study indicating joblessness to be disproportionately higher among the two groups.

As of September, one of ten female providers said they were jobless, even as the rate had decreased since mid May when the authorities began phasing out the MCO. The unemployment rate was over 30 per cent at the time.

The figure is also considerably higher than the average national unemployment rate of 4.3 per cent and 5.3 per cent in May.

Researchers said the number of jobless households with disabilities were also very alarming, with one of three adults with disabilities were found to be either jobless or are no longer actively seeking employment.

The figure is higher among their household members where 60 per cent are not working.

Uneven recovery

The findings have pointed to a need for urgent government intervention, UNFPA and Unicef said in its executive summary.

Despite official prediction of a rebound in the second half, evidence from the survey suggests whatever economic recovery that followed the lifting of restrictions has been limited, uneven, and offered little security for the country’s most imperiled communities.

“The low-income urban families are showing signs of recovery, but it has yet to recover to the pre-crisis level,” the summary said.

“The recovery is partial, uneven, and uncertain.”

Public flats in the Klang Valley have among the highest concentrations of poverty incidence in Malaysia, which government officials claim have reduced over the decades although more independent economists have cast doubts over the statistics.

The “Family On The Edge” series of studies undertaken by DM Analytics, a public policy outfit, suggested that there are some 61,000 urban households living in dire conditions, with up to half of its main providers found to be living below the absolute poverty line as of September, significantly higher than last year.

For households headed by persons with disabilities, the study found the relative poverty rate among them to be a full 100 per cent.

Median household income rose by 23 per cent between May and September to RM2,233, but is still 9 per cent lower compared to last year both for male and female-headed households.

UNFPA and Unicef said they interviewed up to 500 households living in the Public Housing Projects around the capital city, samples they said were enough to get an accurate picture of the socio-economic state of these households, with a margin of error of just over four per cent.

Their findings corroborate the outcome of dozens of studies that looked into the financial impact of Covid-19 on the poor. All pointed to a critical need for governments to channel resources into helping this community amid one of the worst economic crises in human history.

On the brink of extreme poverty

In Malaysia, restrictions imposed to stem the spread of Covid-19 have pushed lower income households to the edge of extreme poverty, as the outbreak took a toll on their jobs or sources of income.

Nearly half of respondents in the UNFPA and Unicef survey said their incomes were reduced significantly between May and September, while close to a third said they cannot or are having problems restarting their businesses.

Up to 70 per cent of them are employees, mostly in informal sectors, the study indicated. A fifth are self-employed although the rate is higher among the disabled, at more than 53 per cent, underscoring the disproportionate impact the MCO had on the community.

Female heads of households were also the largest group to have reported taking pay cuts, the study said, up to two-thirds.

All this makes government intervention critical, researchers said in its conclusion of the study, as they stressed the need for improved coverage following findings that a large majority of self-employed heads of households were still in the dark about available assistance.

“Only 2 per cent had applied for the Prihatin Special Grant,” the report noted.

“Families feel that they will continue needing Covid-19-related aid and assistance, particularly due to their inability to resume work or economic activities.”

UNFPA and Unicef added there was also a need for “continued and even greater attention to the development of a more comprehensive and effective social policy framework in Malaysia”.

This included extending welfare assistance schemes at least to all children, older people and people living with disabilities, groups more likely to fall into greater poverty, finding ways to boost the wages of low income workers, and better employment protection.

Policymakers were also urged to expand provision of quality school meals while also strengthening measures to prevent school drop-outs, including through more active risk-informed collaboration between schools and social welfare services.

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