Squeezed and silenced

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If the government is committed to uplifting workers, it should encourage them to unionise, says K George. Labour Day falls on 1 May. It is celebrated by workers in almost all parts of the world, except the United States of America and a few other countries. Briefly,  the significance of this great day which means so much for the working people is that it was on 1 May 1886 that the American workers submitted a demand to their government for 8 hours work in a day and one day of rest in a week.

As had been anticipated, the employers were not prepared to concede to this just demand. Consequently, the workers went on a protracted struggle, the result of which was indescribable – several workers either lost their lives or limbs, many were imprisoned or dismissed.

At the end of the day, the workers’ solidarity and determination triumphed.  They got what they demanded.  The message spread all over the world.  Many governments started enacting laws with regard to working hours, days of rest, overtime allowances etc.  May Day celebrations honour the workers’ struggle and sacrifice and reminds  working people that unity and solidarity are vital in the fight against the exploitation of the workers and for the emancipation of the poor.

Out of the more than 26 million population in our country, just over 2 million are foreign workers; more than 10 million are Malaysian workers of whom over 9 million are employees in the private sector and the remaining (less than 1 million) are public sector  employees.  These are approximate figures.

Safeguarding workers’ rights

All over the world where democracy is the system of government, there are trade unions for workers.

Well, the basic and fundamental objective of a trade union is to safeguard the well-being of workers – their wages, their fringe benefits, their working conditions and their dignity.   A trade union can join federations, confederations, international trade union secretariats and global organisations.  It is, therefore important for workers to be trade union members, not only to struggle for their rights but also to strengthen the unity of the working class, nationally and internationally.

Exploitation of foreign workers

In Malaysia the foreign workers are not allowed to join trade unions. As a result,  they have no organisation to protect them.  They are not entitled to EPF benefits; many of them are not paid overtime allowances or granted  annual leave and various other benefits stipulated in the Employment Act 1955. They are left to the mercy of their employers.  It is, therefore, very common to come across stories of foreign workers not being paid their wages for months and forced to live under deplorable conditions.

This mindless and unforgivable exploitation of foreign workers results in adverse repercussions for Malaysian workers.  The employers prefer to employ foreign workers rather than the local workers who can fall back on their unions for protection and justice.  The International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention stipulates that workers must be allowed complete freedom to form and join trade unions. But unfortunately, there are a few democratic countries which impose legal restrictions on the formation of unions and one of them is Malaysia.

Extraordinary powers to control unions

When the nation achieved Merdeka on 31 August1957, trade unions not only gave their full support but also gave an undertaking that there would be no strike for two years.  The Alliance government’s response to the unions’ gesture of support and goodwill was shocking.  The government enacted the Trade Unions Act 1959 (TUA) with numerous restrictive provisions.

Unions in the private sector can only be formed based on trade, occupation or industry – which meant outlawing general unions and limiting the strength of these unions. Sadly, the ban on general unions still remains.  The Act has conferred extraordinary powers on the Director General of Trade Unions (DGTU) in dealing with the unions and it has more than enough provisions to keep the unions under control. At the same time, employers, both local and foreign, would rather avoid dealing with unions in their enterprises and industries even though foreign investors, in contrast, would gladly maintain friendly relationships with their respective trade unions in their home countries.

One glaring example is the fate of workers in the electronic industry.  The electronic industry, which arrived on these shores from Japan and the US, started in Malaysia in the early 1970s.  Although the Trade Unions Act clearly states that workers in a particular industry are allowed to be in one union, all efforts by the workers and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) to register one union for the workers (mostly women) in the electronic industry were repeatedly rejected.  Consequently, more than 200,000 electronic workers are still denied trade union protection. “It is the government’s policy, although the law allows,” opined a minister. But the minister was too coy to put it bluntly,Ït’s the divide and rule policy!

Unethical delays in recognition

The primary function and objective of trade unions is to ensure the well-being of workers and safeguard their interests.  One of the most effective ways of achieving this is through collective bargaining.  In Malaysia, a union can only begin collective bargaining after it has been accorded recognition by the employer, in accordance with the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) 1967.

Normally, if a union can establish that it has over 50 per cent of workers as members, the employers usually accord  recognition.  After that the union concerned can begin collective bargaining.  Nevertheless, it is not unusual for the union to have to deal with obstinate anti-union employers.  Such an employer will devise unethical and unjust methods to reject recognition on any ground.

The Act prohibits the union from resorting to industrial action for recognition.  At times, it takes several years before recognition is accorded.  In the meantime, members become disgusted, disappointed and disillusioned and they may even cease to be members by default.  To overcome this serious problem, the union would exempt its members from paying union subscription!  In my trade union career, I came across one atrocious employer who took 27 years before according recognition.  Were the members still in the union when the recognition was finally accorded? I don’t remember!

Negotiating collective agreements

Once the employer accords recognition, it is the union’s right and the employer’s obligation to begin collective bargaining.  The Act stipulates that appointments, promotions, demotions and termination of service are not negotiable.  Unions usually do not interfere with appointments.  Nonetheless, as far as promotions, demotions and terminations are concerned, there should not be any prohibition because this is unjust and uncalled for. Many active unionists and leaders are victimised and fall prey to this provision since termination is not negotiable. Employers easily resort to this provision to get rid of active unionists in their work place.

Collective bargaining usually concludes with the signing of a Collective Agreement by both parties for a period of three years.  Before the expiry of the agreement, the union and the employer should begin negotiations for another Collective Agreement to preserve harmony and cordial reltionship between the union and the employer.

In the event of a dispute, either party can seek the intervention of the Industrial Relations Department (IRD). If no settlement is reached, the IRD will refer the dispute to the Human Resources Minister.  If his efforts fail as well, the minister is expected to refer the dispute to the Industrial Court for arbitration.  The Industrial Court’s decision can be challenged in the civil courts by the disputing parties. But refering the matter to the civil courts entails inordinate delays. To overcome this, it is preferable to set up a special Appeals Court solely to address the decisions of the Industrial Court.

In the case of termination of service, Section 20 of the IRA enables the victim to appeal to the IRD, the minister and, if there’s no settlement, to the Industrial Court, provided of course the victim has reason to believe that the termination was unjustified and it was a case of wilful victimisation.

Although I feel that Malaysia’s labour laws are not worker-friendly, I strongly urge workers to form unions to fight for their rights. Workers can seek the assistance of the MTUC at any time for the formation of unions and in the handling of labour problems.

Security guards cheated

As is known, there are millions of workers who are not union members. The employers are by and large committed to making as much profit as possible.  In the process, exploitation of their workers is inevitable and they have no qualms in doing so.

First and foremost, we must all know that all of us are born equal.  We have a right to life.  Workers in particular have the right to work.  Without work, you are no better than a beggar.  It is the duty of the government to provide jobs for workers.  It  must bear in mind: Capital, Management and Labour are equal partners in an enterprise or industry.  Capital can produce nothing without labour and management.  Workers have the right to demand reasonable wages, fringe benefits and other facilities.

The Employment Act 1955 stipulates that the workers are entitled to overtime allowances, allowances for working on rest days and public holidays, annual leave, sick leave, maternity leave, etc.  Further, every employee is entitled to EPF contributions by the employers at the rate of 12 per cent of the salary.

Based on my survey and enquiries, I have come to know that thousands of employees are being cheated by their employers.  Security guards are the worst affected victims. Their salary may be RM800 but the employer’s EPF contribution could be RM48 instead of RM96 per month. Even though  many of them are over 55 years of age they are still eligible for the EPF contribution at the rate of 12 per cent of their salary.  They are usually asked to work 12 hours without overtime pay.  They seem to be ignorant of their entitlement to annual leave, medical leave, and public holidays. As a result, these poor workers are blatantly exploited.

Mahathir and the minimum wage

For the past 40 years, the MTUC has been asking for a minimum wage. In 1998, MTUC leaders had a meeting with the then premier, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.  He was not satisfied with the MTUC’s proposal of RM900 per month and felt it should be at least RM1,200 – but he added that he could not implement it because of the economic recession at that time.  Eight years have passed; Mahathir is out of office.  But the minimum wage is no where in sight. It is time for the MTUC to revive this issue and mount a campaign for minimum wage especially now because the spiralling cost of living has hit the poor people very hard .

If the government is committed to uplifting workers, it should take steps to encourage the unionisation of as many workers as possible; foreign workers too  must be allowed to join unions.  Greater unionisation will stop unscrupulous employers from exploiting the workers, and it will also ensure that illegal immigrants are not unlawfully employed. The union will ensure that illegal workers will not displace the local workers.

It is time for employers to recognise that a contented work-force will help to raise productivity, which in turn will increase profit.  The MTUC has since its formation resolved that only through political involvement can workers’ rights be achieved.  The present MTUC president is an active member of a political party.  Other leaders and members must emulate his example.

Workers must actively be involved in politics to force politicians to pay attention to their problems and grant the minimum wage that is necessary for a decent living. Politicians must give priority for the welfare of the workers who contribute tremendously for the economic growth of the country instead of getting carried away with mega projects which only benefit those few who are close to the powers-that-be.

Workers form the bulk of the voters. They must be conscious of this fact. They are in a position to influence political decisions which will guarantee their rights. The Members of Parliament must bear in mind that they are sitting in Parliament because of the workers and their votes.

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