Workers were made destitute and the dignity of labour trampled upon by ISA detentions and oppressive labour laws, recalls Sai N S Wigneswaran.
Aliran Monthly has been the most ardent critic of social injustice and dictatorial tendencies in the country. The last issue of Aliran, dedicated to exposing the evils of the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), is an outstanding example.
The emphasis all-through has been to highlight the plight and sufferings of the politicians and the selfless sacrifices of people like the Hindraf Five, incarcerated for standing up for the rights of the downtrodden and the marginalised poorest of the poor in our country.
The devastating effect that the ISA had on organised workers and their organisations has not been made known in the right perspective.
The late Bro (Dr) V David was one of the earliest trade unionist victims of the ISA. He was detained without trial for a record of four times. I visited him a few times while he was in detention and he would show me the rashes on his body caused by gigantic bed bugs and mosquitoes. His main concern was his scalp with dandruff causing severe itch and falling of hair, which in fact ultimately made him bald. I managed to get for him some herbal hair oil, which he revealed to me after his release was delivered to him in a bottle labelled as cough mixture.
His plight under detention is microscopic when compared to the tragedy that struck thousands of workers who were disorganised as a consequence of the introduction of the amendments to the labour laws that followed resulting in the automatic cancellation of the registration of all general unions along with the strong and powerful National Union of Factory and General Workers (NUFGW) of which Bro David was the general secretary.
At the time of his detention, Tun Razak said that David was not detained for trade union activities, but when David was released from detention the condition for his release was that he should not take part in trade union activities for two years. Bro David defied this condition and became the executive secretary of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and challenged the government to arrest him, which it did not do immediately but he was subsequently detained a few times under the ISA.
The workers who were members of the de-registered NUFGW demonstrated their solidarity confined within the narrow arena of crafts and trades such as the Road Transport Industry. The government succeeded in further reinforcing the deliberately calculated policy of the colonial masters by enacting laws that made the trade unions weak and feeble.
The government through Dr Mahathir Mohamed, who was then the Uumno Labour Bureau leader, tried to disrupt the Transport Workers Union by encouraging and supporting splinter unions on a racial basis. He helped to establish a splinter union for the workers of the Sri Jaya Transport Company, who were then members of the TWU. The Registrar Of Trade Unions carried out a referendum to ascertain which Union should represent the workers in the Sri Jaya Transport Company. At the Company’s bus depot where the referendum was conducted, a kenduri was held and a big banner “Malay Employer, Malay Employees, Malay Union” was displayed.
The workers had the horse sense and voted in favour of the Transport Worker Union. Mahathir then marched with a few of his supporters to see Tun Razak, who advised the workers to join the TWU.
Destitute port workers
The plight of another group of workers – the Penang Port Workers who were disorganised by the deregistration of the NUFGW was so tragic that the workers were reduced to the level of destitutes.
At that time I was just posted to the Penang Federal Audit Department. This is what I witnessed. About 50 to 100 workers would be registered as residents in a shop-house in King Street and other areas in and around the Penang Port. Most of them spent the night sleeping on the five foot ways, Chinese temples and all over the port area. Married workers were mostly accommodated in dilapidated houses or in Rumah Haram in the slums.
There was no guaranteed minimum work. Some of them were organised into weak fragmented unions, established with the help of the Trade Union Advisers Department. The department functioned like a factory manufacturing unions, which were created via orders from London to discourage the formation of strong viable national unions. This policy was systematically enforced by the colonial government, which when allowing trade union rights to the workers in the colonies also cautiously ensured that the unions were not strong and vibrant to challenge their colonial might.
A similar policy was covertly carried out by our leaders in our independent sovereign nation for more that 50 years. The government’s denial of registration of a National Union (Nuepacs) to replace the loosely knit Congress of Unions of Employees in the Public and Civil Services (Cuepacs) is a case in point.
There was one union called the Stevedores Union, which had its address at King Street. A few of the workers who were active in the now deregistered NUFGW were members of this union. The wages of the workers were regulated by a lop-sided Wages Council and there was no proper supervision for the enforcement of its decisions.
The workers would gather in the wee hours of the morning at the Penang jetty. A commanding figure called “Tendal” (supervisor) would stand on a box and call the names of workers. He would even call names of those who were not present. Those who were called would get into sampans and proceed to the cargo ships anchored in the harbor to do a 24-hour shift. Those whose names were called but who were not present, known as the privileged class, would join the ships later. The majority of the workers who were not called would return disappointed and spend their time in one of the many teh tarik stalls in the vicinity of the port or sleep under the shade of the trees. Some would play cards at the five-foot ways, which served as their ‘bedroom’ at night.
The criteria for the selection of the workers was based on whether the workers were relatives of the tendal, or from his village in India or if they would give him commission. The situation was so desperate that some of the workers even stooped so low as to offer bribes to get selected for work.
These workers under the Collective Agreements with the now defunct NUFGW and the contractors for the handling of cargo were guaranteed a minimum number of days work each month and reasonable fair wages including meal allowance.
All these Collective Agreements became inoperative and thousands of port workers who belonged to the deregistered NUFGW were reduced to the level of destitutes as their leaders were detained under the ISA and labour laws were passed by a government that continued to win a two-thirds majority for half a century.
The manner in which the wages were paid to these ‘slave’ workers who were disorganised by the banning of the NUFGW was exploitation of the worst kind, rarely seen elsewhere in the world.
After a 24-four hour shift, the sampans would bring the workers who were weary and half-sleepy back to the jetty.
At the jetty, a number of Chettiars and Punjabis would be hanging around. The workers would hand their wage chits to these shylocks. The chits of varying amounts ($12-14) would be cashed after deduction of a commission of about 30 per cent e.g. a wage chit for $12 would be cashed for about $9 and a wage chit of $14 would be cashed for $10-11. Sometimes, these workers would only be given a few dollars for meals and the balance would be set off against a loan the workers had borrowed from the shylocks on dry days without work.
The shylocks would cash these wage chits from the contractors for the full amount within weeks.
The workers were penniless and hungry. They had to get cash to appease their hunger. The shylocks would swallow about 30 per cent of their earnings to give them cash immediately. It was a cruel world created by the draconian laws that hurt organised labour more than anybody else.
A few friends of the workers got together and established a private fund by taking credit loans from the Co-operative Thrift and Loan Societies. Under the By-laws of the Societies, up to 80 per cent of a member’s subscription savings could be granted as a loan at a very low annual interest with the repayment period spread over a maximum of 36 months in small monthly instalments. We were able to pool a considerable amount to cash the wage chits of the workers and save them from the clutches of the shylocks who were deducting almost 30 per cent for cashing the wage chits.
No levy or charge was imposed for cashing the wage chits. An undyal (collection box) was placed at the union office for the workers to voluntarily donate whatever amount they wanted to. The saying that poor people have generous hearts was proven by the encouraging amounts found in the undyal
The news of this service spread and more workers enrolled as members. After a few months the private fund was able to pay the monthly instalments to those who took the cooperative loans to establish the Fund and all the loans were repaid in full.
The union’s finances also improved and for the first time the union was able to organise one-day seminars to provide trade union education. The rapport between the union and the employers (contractors) also gradually improved.
The workers were provided with a meal (nasi bungkus) for the 24-hour shift in lieu of meal allowance which they used to receive under the defunct Collective Agreements. When we had a seminar at the Chulia Street Chinese Temple, I asked a worker to bring a nasi bungkus supplied to them. I opened the nasi bungkus that was supplied and said this was worse than dog’s food. Even the dog would refuse to eat it. There was nothing in the bungkus except plain rice and some gravy with two or three slices of cucumber. One of the workers said in Tamil, “Ayah, please see how many stones are there in the rice.”
Retnam, a journalist and a labour sympathiser attached to the Straits Echo, wrote a story on this and I had to pay a price for it. I was absorbed into the permanent establishment of the government along with thousands of temporaries as a result of the struggle of the Government Temporary Officers Union (GTOU) of which I was one of the founders and its first general secretary.
Persecuted within the department
Subsequently, I was promoted to the Audit Service, a closed departmental service, as an assistant examiner of accounts and transferred to the Penang branch of the department while I was on a one-yea probation. I was not given my letter of confirmation or increment. I waited for eight months and wrote a letter to my headquarters enquiring about the delay.
I was given a reply signed by the acting Deputy Auditor General, A B Warrick: “It was found necessary to inform the Public Services Commission (PSC) that your outside activities are such as to prejudice the efficient performance of your duties and I am advised to place you on probation for a further one year during which time if I am unable to recommend your confirmation action will be taken to revert you to your former service.”
I protested vehemently and demanded an explanation as to why I was not informed three months before the due date as required by the General Orders and given an opportunity to exculpate myself or improve in my work and only told of this on enquiry after eight months of the due date. There was no reply and I was confirmed in my appointment at the end of one year. All the same I lost one year of my seniority and one increment. This is a trifle sacrifice compared to the sacrifices and sufferings of the pioneers of the workers movement.
There is a British saying that if you want to kill a dog, first give it a bad name and then shoot it. This is precisely what happened in my case. The deferment of my confirmation and the stoppage of the annual increment of salary had nothing to do with the alleged lacking in the “efficient performance of my duties” as an audit officer.
Since the inception of my career in government service in 1953 till my retirement, I had remained with the Federal Audit Department. It was from the same department that I sat for a competitive examination to qualify for emplacement in the permanent and pensionable establishment. It is in the same Audit Department that I was recommended, interviewed by the PSC, and promoted as an assistant examiner of accounts and appointed to the Audit Departmental Service.
The accusation that “the outside activities are prejudicial to the efficient performance of my duties” is not the reason I was penalised for. It was the undercurrent of frustrations among the expatriate officers in the Audit Department that was the real reason.
On being absorbed into the Federal Audit Service, I took the initiative to form the Audit Officers Union (AOU) and was its first general secretary. I continued to hold an official position in the union even when I was transferred to Penang.
Malaysianisation in reverse
At that time, the Malaysianisation of the Civil Service was rapidly taking place in all government departments. Fat compensations were paid to all expatriates whose posts were replaced by Malaysians. But the converse was happening in the Audit Department, which was placed under the Paramount Ruler and not under any Ministry (to maintain its independence and impartiality).
While the rest of the civil service was being Malaysianised, the Audit Department continued to expand its expatriate establishment. Most of the senior positions from the Auditor General (now Juru Odit Negara) to senior auditors were held by foreigners.
An article captioned “European-isation of the Audit Department” was published in the official organ of Cuepacs – “The Cuepacs Bulletin”. The article questioned the audacity of the department in importing more and more expatriates into the country contrary to the avowed policy of the government to Malaysianise all important positions in the administration in keeping with the aims and aspirations of independent Malaysia.
This sent shock waves to the nation as the mainstream media also carried the article that appeared in the Cuepacs Bulletin. The Malaysianisation of the Audit Service started to move with speed and the import of foreigners came to an abrupt halt. It should now be obvious why I was penalised.
MAS union leaders detained – and released
The Stevedores Union was not affiliated to the MTUC because they had no money to pay the affiliation fees or send a delegation to Kuala Lumpur to participate in the MTUC Delegates Conference.
The plight of these disorganised workers was made known by letter to everyone including the ILO, in whose meetings MTUC delegates participated .Even today the worst death blow delivered to organided workers by the ISA remain unnoticed. Apart from the workers in the Penang Port, thousands of workers in factories and other industries throughout the country who were members of the deregistered NUFGW became disorganised and were left in the lurch
There is another incident which made the bosses of the ISA relent. Bro Donald Uren, the president of the Railwaymen Union of Malaya (RUM) who led the marathon railway strike that put an end to the shame and sufferings of the IMG workers and removed an Insult perpetrated by the Malaysian Government by emplacing them in the permanent establishment and on monthly pay moved up to the International Transport Federation (ITF).
In the ITF, Uren recorded many firsts. In war-torn Vietnam, the port workers were badly exploited and they were not allowed to strike; and the employers were unreasonable. Uren devised a unique method. He made the port workers give notices of mass resignations which was their inherent right. The employers relented, negotiated and amicably settled the dispute.
In Malaysia, the MAS Employees Union, having exhausted all avenues, resorted to industrial action.
The Government as usual invoked the ISA and arrested the MAS union leaders along with Bro Donald Uren of the ITW. Uren had a heart ailment and was hospitalised. When I went to the hospital I was fortunately able to see him. He waved to me to go nearer to him. He whispered into my ears: “This place is bugged.”
I spoke loud and clear all I wanted to say about the draconian ISA and the anti-labour laws of the government so that every word could be recorded.
After a couple of days, the MAS union leaders were released along with Bro Uren. Everyone wondered what made the Government benevolent. Certainly it was not my loud jeers recorded by the secret service at Bro Uren’s hospital bed.
It was the fear that the International Transport Federation would refuse to service MAS flights anywhere in the free world that brought about the change of heart.
Herein lies the answer to the devilish ISA. Workers of the world unite – irrespective of ‘-isms’ and political affiliations to fight injustice anywhere and everywhere in the world. It is the united voice of the workers of the world that can emancipate the workers and bestow dignity to labour.
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