Activism In Business 0 985

With the current global climate, it has become more and more necessary for companies to engage with social activism, or at least stand in solidarity with them. From Black Lives Matter to the climate change movement, it has become apparent that society is no longer going to sit silently over issues they are passionate about. We are seeing that the rise of the conscious consumer has led to more and more businesses adopting social responsibility practices, while also being more vocal about the causes that surround them. But is the idea of activism in business truly idiosyncratic? How can business, the root of the capitalist agenda, work to amend and tear down the systems in which they thrive from.

There is a distinction between corporate social responsibility and activism in business that needs to be noted. Corporate social responsibility – CSR – is when a business either operates in a way that is in the best interest of not just their shareholders but their stakeholders at large or when a business has a variety of programmes or charitable organisations that they donate to in order to support the community. It can be intrinsic to their business practices or it can exist in addition to the more traditional ways of running a business. Either way, it can be categorised under CSR. Activism in business on the other hand is when a business publicly shows their solidarity with a certain social movement ‘aimed at building awareness about a particular issue while also promoting a positive corporate message’ (the conversation). It is when businesses take clear stances on these sometimes challenging and polarising issues. It can also work in a way to brand the company in favour of public opinion but depending on the stance they take, it can garner some negative feedback from the public.

A great example we often turn to is Ben & Jerry’s – a gold star in social responsibility, Ben & Jerry’s continue to set the bar on how to approach their community in a conscious and caring way. Putting aside their business practices, Ben & Jerry’s are not afraid to take a stand for the things they believe in. They unapologetically create ice-cream flavors rooted in activism with design to match, they march with climate change activists and continue to advocate for responsible business practices within Unilever. These beliefs and standards are the heart of the company; with Ben and Jerry themselves literally protesting and getting arrested at various rallies. Customers choose their brand over others not only because they have a great product, but also because they share the same values. 

Photo Credit: Ben & Jerry’s

Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t shy away from the hard conversation; after the wrongful and inhumane murder of George Floyd, they didn’t choose the easy route of solidarity by posting a black square on Instagram. Rather, they released a lengthy statement calling for the dismantling of white supremacy and addressing the issue head on. It is jarring to see a company that most associate with light-hearted sweet treats get so serious and so real about these complicated, historical and difficult issues. No one expects an ice-cream company to take a clear, hard stance – but if they are willing to stand up for what’s right, why not the other companies? Why didn’t we see this level of activism from brands across the board?

The Music Industry 

After pressure from both artists and the public, we saw big record labels put a lot of money into the cause. Warner Music pledged $100million, Sony Music matched that amount, Universal Music pledged $15million and after an employee publicly shamed them for not contributing, Spotify pledged $10million. Although this is a significant amount of money, it is a drop in the bucket of what these companies make. For years and years, production houses have profited and benefitted from black artists, but when the time came to stand up for a cause that directly affects the clients in which millions are made from, they did the bare minimum. Donating money to causes does help, but when you are the benchmark of an industry it is your responsibility to take care of the community you often profit from. Structural changes and business policies are what they really need to address. Giving your company a hard look and owning the prejudices and inequality you allow to thrive is how you truly advocate for a cause. Donating big money and making empty promises is a way to appear on the right side of history without actually putting in the work. 

Photo Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

It can be argued that it is easy to be political when you’re an ice-cream company vs a huge music corporation; but that is exactly the point. Activism isn’t something that is easy, it is uncomfortable and difficult. It is pushing the boundaries that are so rooted in the structures that surround us. It’s never inappropriate to stand up for what’s right and through this corporate climate of always trying to stay neutral, companies may lose favour with consumers who are carefully observing. 

Aside from recent events, over the past few years we have seen brands becoming increasingly political. Brands are well aware that they can no longer sit silently but shallow participation will only get you so far. As time carries on, consumers will not tolerate social media campaigns and one-off donations. They want to see structural change, representation in the board of directors and corporate practices that promote activism in its nature. This is only the beginning and if companies do not dive in deep and take a hard look at their policies, more and more consumers will opt out of their businesses.

In Malaysia, activism looks a lot different than it does in the West. We don’t have the same freedom that they do to say exactly what we feel – freedom of speech just doesn’t exist to that extent in our country. When we look back on one of the biggest and more popularised movements – the Bersih rallies that happened from 2007 aimed at ending the historically corrupt elections, there was zero public support from corporations and businesses.

They were afraid.

They were afraid of alienating the majority of the population.

They were afraid of how the government would respond and reprimand them.

They were afraid of what would happen of what would happen to their brand. 

In 2007, this lack of private-sector support could be tolerated, understood even. The world we lived in then was much different than the world we live in now. Social media had not yet come about and fear-based politics were the main tactic of the government. But in 2020, when Malaysia has been given freedom of the press and more freedom of speech than ever before, why do companies still refuse to take a firm stance on the issues our nation faces?

Photo Credit: New Straits Times

Around the same time that the Black Lives Matter hashtag was trending on social media, the issue of police brutality amongst Indians in Malaysia was brought to light. Mangai Balasegaram wrote in The Star, about how Malaysian Indians “account for almost one in four deaths in police custody, despite making up only 7% of the population”. It is a shocking fact, most of us didn’t even know that this was an issue in our country. More and more stories came to light on social media and people started to educate themselves, sharing stories and opinions across their platforms. It is not a straight-line parallel to what happens in America, but it sure is close. Despite this, we yet again saw no companies sharing support on this matter. NGOs and non-profits were the only ones taking it upon themselves to disseminate the information to the public.

One company that tried to foster a more light-hearted “One Malaysia” sentiment was Cadbury, but they failed to include a single Indian person in their ad aimed at celebrating everyday Malaysians. It is almost comical that in their efforts to bring about some positivity in these trying times, they left out an entire community and the injustices that they faced. Considering it was the main topic of conversation amongst the socially aware population. But it is the perfect metaphor to how business activism in Malaysia has been practiced – semi-well intentioned, badly executed and always erring on the side of neutrality. 

Malaysia has a long way to go in terms of activism in business, but what the past year has taught us is that more and more of the community is becoming increasingly socially-minded. It is not just a Western concept but one that is only growing in need and popularity in Malaysia as well.  We cannot predict what the future will bring us – none of us were prepared for the upheaval of daily life from Covid-19 or that the outrage from George Floyd’s murder would lead us all the way on the other side of the world to re-examine the treatment of our own people. What we can predict is that if corporations stick to their classical ways of operations and do not take a stand where a stand is necessary, they will lose favour with the growing population of conscious consumers. But will they grow obsolete? 

 What do you think?

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Hartal Doktor Kontrak 0 967

Doctors and healthcare professionals all over the world have been the solid foundation of this pandemic, without their hard work and perseverance, so many lives would have been lost. In Malaysia, we pride ourselves on our amazing healthcare having excellent service at both private and public hospitals. 

With our country crossing 1 million cases, the daily numbers reaching an all-time high and hospitals being pushed to the brink of capacity, healthcare workers have been reaching their breaking point. Not only are they overworked and have been facing the brunt of this pandemic, but they have also not been given the job security that they so deeply deserve.

To stand up for their rights, doctors all over Malaysia protested under the Hartal Doktor Kontrak movement and walked out of their respective posts at 11am yesterday.

The demands of this strike are simple: 

That the doctors who are contracted be given the opportunity to become permanent staff with all the additional benefits that come with it. Given that it is actually within the mandate of their training, what these doctors are asking for is just what they have been promised upon their graduation. 

We took some time to speak to one doctor who has been working on the frontline:

1- Why do you feel it has come to the point where there is a need for a strike?

The contract system has been in place for 5 years now. In the beginning, we were promised that we would be absorbed as permanent doctors (and thus a step up in pay grade, get all the associated benefits, etc) once we finished our 2-3 year housemanship. But then, the government said we would be continuing our contract, and that if you fulfil certain criteria, you would be able to obtain a permanent post. But then they were in turn not transparent on WHAT these criteria were… the list of lies and false promises goes on and on. And now, five years on, when the first batch of contract MOs are facing the end of their contracts, with no guarantee that the contract itself will be renewed… they’re faced with no jobs. They have to go and either work in the private sector or seek greener pastures in some other field. 

Imagine that.

The other thing is – contract doctors cannot further their studies and become specialists under this current contract system. Contract doctors are not eligible for the local master degree programmes that trains specialists. For certain specialities, you can attempt to take what is called the parallel pathway – to sit for external exams from the UK or Australia, paid from your own pocket of course, and to get accredited via that. The problem with this is that you need a certain amount of hours and weeks and years clocked in before this parallel pathway can accept you as a candidate. And if you’re on a contract that has a clock ticking, and without a guarantee that you can fulfil that amount of hours, you’re just wasting your money because you cannot be a specialist anyway. 

All of this, all the years of being told that you should shrug off these problems and focus on your patients when you’re getting burned out and disillusioned… I think that’s why it’s come to this point. This tipping point.

2- This process of going from contract worker to permanent staff has been commonplace amongst medical fresh grads, is this a call for permanent reformation?

There needs to be a reform overall I think. If you look at doctors in the UK, all of them are hired on a contract basis. The difference is that they have a chance to further their studies, and have fair and equal benefits among all. If you want the contract doctors to be satisfied, at least make it so that we have the same benefits and opportunity to further our studies as our permanent counterparts. Either that being by making everybody permanent, or making everybody contract, we don’t really care. We just want what we’re due.

3- Do you feel like you have been put in a position where you have no choice but to work under contract?

There is no choice. In Malaysia, to qualify as a fully registered doctor, you need to complete your Housemanship (internship) in a government hospital. The only way you can do that now is by being hired as a contract houseman. Upon completing your housemanship, you are upgraded to a contract MO (lower paygrade, fewer benefits than permanent MOs). You want to specialise? In Malaysia – only possible in government service. 

Unless you want to be a private GP, or a medical officer in a private hospital… I don’t see how there’s any choice other than being a contract doctor in the government service.

4- What role has the pandemic played in sparking this movement?

The pandemic has highlighted a lot of the flaws in the current contract system. It is easier to mobilise contract workers (I am not entirely sure the reasons why), which is why you see 60-70% of our COVID frontliners being made up of contract doctors. We can be sent across the country, from Peninsular to Sabah/Sarawak within a week’s notice. We’re thrown into COVID hospitals, COVID wards, MAEPS, PPV centres, with barely enough time to breathe. Because we are quote-unquote dispensable, it is easy for the government to make use of us. And just like wet tissue paper, we are then discarded once we have fulfilled our purpose. 

That’s a metaphor I’ve often used in the past year and a half. With no news on whether our contracts will be renewed in 5 years, after having thrown us to the dogs so to speak in this pandemic, it’s no wonder we feel disregarded. Unappreciated. All the hashtag thank you frontliners, falls flat when you realise no matter how much you praise us and clap for us it won’t matter if we’re jobless in a year once the pandemic is over.

5- If it wasn’t for the dire state of covid in our country, would you seek employment elsewhere?

I’m lucky in a sense. I graduated from a university that allows me to have GMC registration (the UK equivalent of the MMC). At any point in time, if I decided that working in Malaysia was enough, I could theoretically up and move to the UK and practice there. And I’ve thought about it many times. A lot of my classmates have done so themselves, and sometimes ask me why I haven’t gone over myself. 

The simple answer is that – Malaysia is my home. I became a doctor to help people, and who better to help than those in my own country? 

Vaccinations & Body Autonomy 0 867

We’ve all heard the saying “My Body, My Choice.” It applies to almost everything within our lives, what we choose to eat, how we choose to live and the ways we choose to use our bodies. It is a cut and dry reasoning that works for most scenarios, however, when it comes to vaccinations, does My Body, My Choice still hold ground?

In recent years, body autonomy has been mainly used in the context of the pro-life vs pro-choice debate. The pro-choice movement; a leftist cause, believes that individuals have a right to decide what happens to their bodies. A sentiment that is heavily opposed by the more conservative, pro-life movement. Ironically enough, when it came down to vaccinations, the same rhetoric shared by the pro-choice allies was picked up by the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, who are predominantly more conservative. They too believe that it is their body, therefore their choice to decide what to put into it.

This is where things become muddy. When it comes to deciding about something like abortion, it is extremely personal. It heavily affects the life of the individual making the decision and no one else (aside from family and friends). This decision doesn’t affect the mass public and definitely does not put anyone else at risk besides the person choosing to go through with the procedure. It is a decision that exists between that person and their body.

With vaccinations, on the other hand, the consideration of the decision goes further to affect a wider range of people. Not only does it affect your personal health but it affects factors like the healthcare system in your country, the lives of all the people you interact with daily and the ability for the pandemic to come to an end. In a sense, it is a decision that is much bigger than you.

How can we mediate this situation? Individuals should have a right to decide what goes into their bodies, especially when it is something to do with their wellbeing and health. But when the collective is put at risk with your decision, do you still fully have body autonomy?

Governments everywhere have been pushing their citizens to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The rate of vaccination all over the world has seen an exponential increase with a further upturn to come in the next few weeks. Rules are slowly being relaxed for fully vaccinated people and vaccinations will likely be a pre-requisite for travel in the near future.

All these factors will also play a key role in not-so-subtly coercing those who are refusing vaccinations. Many who are apprehensive will feel the pressure and seeing their fully dosed peers going back to life will make it very difficult to stay firm on their stance. Does this challenge body autonomy? Probably. But when it comes to the collective good, is it okay for us to give up some of ourselves for the sake of everyone else?

What do you think?

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