How the British suppressed the labour movement in Malaya

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In the second of a three-part series, Charles Hector examines how the British moved to weaken the blossoming Malayan labour movement.

The British colonial powers, worried about the growing labour movement, decided to try and control and influence it.

They were especially concerned about the perceived influence that the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and other pro-independence groups had in the labour movement.

Methods the British employed to weaken and control the labour movement included the enactment of laws like the Trade Union Ordinance 1940 and the appointment of the trade union advisor.

Registration and control of unions

One of the primary objects of the Trade Union Ordinance was to stabilise the labour situation in the interest of increasing production to sustain Britain’s economy and its war efforts. It was not concerned about workers’ or trade union rights.

The Malayan economy, at that time, was geared towards supporting the wartime needs of Britain. As such, labour and trade union rights and the struggles for better rights that existed had to be suppressed and subordinated to what the British considered more important – imperial defence. Malaya then was considered the ‘dollar arsenal’ for the British empire, and the 1940 Ordinance was enacted to ensure a continued flow of revenue to the British Empire.

The stated objective in the title of this 1940 Ordinance was “An Enactment for the Registration and Control of Trade Unions”.

Its declared purpose was the fostering of “the right kind of responsible leadership amongst workers and at the same time to discourage or reduce such influence as the professional agitators may have had and to reduce the opportunities or the excuse for the activities of such persons” (The first of a two-part series on the trade union movement in Malaysia by Dr Leong Yee Fong).

It was clearly to weaken the existing labour movement and transform existing trade unions and union leadership into what the British wanted.

The existing worker solidarity was to be destroyed and a “divide and weaken” policy was the objective. Private sector workers were to be separated from public sector workers, and workers from different industries and sectors were to be kept apart.

The role of unions was limited to simply ‘industrial relations’ matters – matters between workers and employers only. Unions were no longer allowed to be involved in matters concerning the nation – including the struggle for independence.

This new 1940 Trade Union Ordinance required that unions in Malaya had to be registered (or rather re-registered), and this meant an application to the government for government approval and registration. This allowed the government not to re-register some of the stronger unions and federations of unions across different sectors or industries.

The new law thus prevented government (or public sector) employees and private sector employees from belonging to the same union. The affiliation of unions to other classes of unions was also prevented. Restrictions were also imposed on the use of union funds.

The registration rules were somewhat restrictive. For instance, government employees and non-government employees could not belong to the same union anymore. Neither could the unions even affiliate themselves to unions of other classes of workers.

How union funds were used was also restricted. They could no longer be used for a variety of other purposes including political purposes.

Under these rules, all the existing general labour unions (or even other federations of unions across different sectors, industries or occupations) were un-registerable and therefore could no longer operate legally.

The new Trade Union Ordinance and laws that came into force in 1946 effectively killed the general labour unions, which could no longer be registered (or re-registered) under the new law, and thus they were no longer able to operate legally. This development also also killed off many stronger unions.

What is of interest was that this new policy and laws did not apply to the union movement in Britain – it was just for Malaya. British unions till today are still involved in political struggles and even in political parties like the Labour Party.

Pan Malaysian General Labour Union (PMGLU) – Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU)

In 1947, the Pan Malayan General Labour Union, which was established in 1946 and which later changed its name to the Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU), boasted a membership of 263,598. This represented more than half the total workforce in Malaysia. Some 85% of all existing unions were part of the PMFTU (The Institutional Approach to Labour and Development edited by Klárá Fóti, Laurids Lauridsen, Gerry Rodgers, published by Frank Cass & Co Ltd).

The attitude of the Malayan worker was more assertive during this period.

For instance, “A strike was reported of Chinese and Indian hospital workers because they no longer wanted to be addressed as ‘boy’ . . . .”, and workers began to see their subjection to physical punishments as unacceptable (Morgan, p168).

“Tamil trade unionists refused to suffer any longer the use of the derogatory term ‘Kling’. Estate workers no longer dismounted from their bicycles when a dorai, or planter, passed by” (Harper cites EA Ross, minute, 10 February 1946, and LAB/92/47).

In short, unions’ concern went beyond limited industrial relations matters or employee-employer matters concerning workers’ rights and working conditions.

The British colonial government wanted to crush this development and the ever strengthening labour movement. So it decided to ‘reconstruct’ the organised labour movement in Malaysia and Singapore.

The Singapore trade union adviser SP Garett allowed the Singapore General Labour Union (SGLU) to reorganise as a federation and operate legally without registering, which led to the formation of the Singapore Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) in August 1946.

In Malaya, however, the then trade union adviser, John Alfred Brazier, did not want the same for Malaya. He did not want the PMGLU to be recognised or continue to exist. He ruled that all the branch unions had to register and that after that, there could be no relationship between any of the newly registered unions with the PMGLU (which later came to be known as the PMFTU). The registered unions were not allowed to seek guidance or remit funds to the PMFTU. This created problems for the PMFTU, which ultimately led to its demise.

The Trade Union Ordinance required the registration (or re-registration) of trade unions according to sector or industry. This allowed the government to deny registration to unions they considered strong, unacceptable and/or ‘militant unions’

Until the proclamation by the British colonial authorities of a state of “emergency” in Malaya and Singapore in 1948, most of the plantation trade unions and federations of plantation trade unions in Malaya were affiliated to the PMFTU. It is of interest that the British may have considered the PMFTU as a bigger threat than even the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), for the PMFTU was outlawed even before the CPM was.

Trade union adviser

Another method employed by the British was to try and influence the trade unions. To this end in 1945, a British trade unionist, John Alfred Brazier, was appointed by the government as trade union adviser.

English-educated middle class individuals were groomed and trained to replace the then existing progressive workers’ leadership of trade unions. Among the targeted unions were the plantation workers unions.

The government-appointed trade union adviser’s objective was not to strengthen but to weaken the labour movement in Malaya. This included eliminating its role in the political, socio-economic and cultural life of the nation and narrowly restricting its activities to ‘industrial relations’, that is, the disputes between employers and workers.

This was an unnatural development as workers are also citizens and human being who live in the country. Who wins the federal, state and local government elections is material – the wrong people and parties may mean anti-worker and anti-trade union policies and laws.

This restriction did lead to the further erosion of worker rights and the power of negotiation for better terms. If water, other basic amenities and the cost of living rose, it had a direct impact on the lives of the worker and their families. To bar unions and workers from taking up or speaking on such issues was absurd.

Workers and their unions played a very significant role in the struggle for independence of Malaya from the British colonial government. They also played a significant role in developing the Constitution of Malaya – now Malaysia.

The PMFTU, the Clerical Unions of Penang, Malacca, Selangor and Perak, and the Peasant’s Union were a part of the Pan-Malayan Council of Joint Action (PMCJA), with Tan Cheng Lock as chairman and Gerald de Cruz as secretary-general, who actively campaigned on matters concerning the Malaysian Constitution (Tribune staff reporter, 23 December 1946, “K.L. Forms New ‘Action Council'”, The Malayan Tribune).

What the British did to the trade unions in Malaysia was contrary to the accepted position and role of trade unions in England. To this day, trade unions in the United Kingdom continue to play an active role in the political life of the nation. To this day, they are still very much affiliated to the Labour Party.

The manner in which the British treated the labour movement in Malaya and Singapore was not at all the same the way they treated their own labour movement in Britain. In Malaysia, the object was clearly ‘union busting’ for the benefit of employers and businesses, most of which were British-owned or controlled.

Other laws – Crackdown on the labour movement

The British colonial government used other laws, besides the new labour laws, to suppress or carry out ‘union busting’, a term we use today.

In 1947, the ordinary trespassing law was used to keep u,nion organisers from meeting and speaking with workers in plantations. For instance in late March 1947, a large police force came to the Dublin estate in Kedah to arrest a Federation of Trades Unions official for trespassing as he was speaking to a group of workers there. When the workers closed ranks around the official, the police opened fire, killing one worker and wounding five (Morgan, p178).

In a clash between police and workers at Bedong estate on 3 March 1947, 21 workers were injured; “the strike leader died of injuries received at the hands of the police a few days later”. Sixty-one of these workers were charged and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment (Morgan, p178. He cites Straits Times, 5 March and 8 March 1947).

The existing law then was that workers could not be terminated just for exercising their right to strike – which was the workers’ right.

But in October 1947, in the case of three woman rubber tappers who claimed that their dismissal for striking was wrong, the Supreme court ruled that striking was a breach of contract and that the dismissal was justified. This was a major change of law and policy.

Unionists were also convicted for intimidation. In November 1947, S Appadurai, vice president of the Penang Federation of Trade Unions and chairman of the Indian section of the Penang Harbour Labour Association, was charged with having written to an employer warning him against using ‘blacklegs’.

“Backlegs are those who act against the interests of a trade union by continuing to work during a strike or by taking over a striker’s job during a strike. In law then and before this, it was wrong for employers to use ‘backlegs’ when workers are on strike. But in this case, the union leader was found guilty and sent to prison.

In January 1948, K Vanivellu, secretary of the Kedah Federation of Rubber Workers Unions, was charged with having written to an employer asking him to reinstate 14 workers who had been dismissed for striking and suggesting that if he did not, the remaining workers might leave the job.

Hence, various other laws and the courts were also used wrongly, for the purpose of union busting pursuant to the new British policy to weaken the labour movement in Malaysia,
Amendments to the Trade Union Ordinance

The Trade Union Ordinance was again amended to weaken unions. New amendments were passed by the Federal Legislative Council on 31 May 1948. The amendments were in three parts.

The first stipulated that a trade union official must have at least three years’ experience in the industry concerned.

The second prohibited anyone convicted of certain criminal offences (notably intimidation and extortion, which were common charges against unionists) from holding trade union office.

The third stated that a federation could only include workers from one trade or industry (The amendments are described in Morgan, pp185,6; and Stenson, f.n., p8. Wikipedia).

The first provision was seen as “a measure designed to exclude educated ‘outsiders’”. It also created problems because many workers worked in different industries and sectors because work available at that time was not permanent – more of a seasonal or transient nature. It is like what is happening now, with the use of the precarious short-term contracts, when after the end of the contracts, workers have no choice but to find another job more often than not in a different industry or sector.

The third part that insisted that a federation could only include workers from one trade or industry effectively killed the PMFTU and even the SFTU. This divided the private sector workers further, and it also affected public sector workers because it prevented workers from different sectors and industries from coming together and fighting for better rights and common issues.

PMFTU outlawed in June 1948

On 12 June 1948, the British colonial government finally outlawed the PMFTU. This is interesting considering the fact that only later in July 1948 was the Malayan Communist Party and other left-wing groups made illegal. Can we say that for the British colonial government, the bigger concern or threat was the labour movement and unions – not the Communist Party?

Many of the leaders of the labour movement were arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced. SA Ganapathy, for example, who was the first president of the 300,000-strong Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU), was hanged by the British in May 1949. He was said to be on the way to the police to surrender a firearm he found, when he was arrested by police and sentenced to hang in Pudu Jail.

Council of Trade Unions – Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC)

The British colonial government effectively succeeded in crushing the labour movement in Malaya. With the requirement of registration and the powers vested in the Registrar of Trade Unions, the government could now eliminate the stronger ‘trouble maker’ trade unionists and trade unions and break up the labour movement according to sectors or industries – divide and rule.

In January 1949, only 163 registered trade unions remained with a total membership of only 68,814. In comparison, the PMFTU had a membership of about 263,598 – which represented more than 50% of the total workforce.

The Council of Trade Unions was formed, and they organised the Conference of Malayan Trade Union Delegates on 27-28 February 1949, and this gave birth to what is today known as the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC).

As the amended trade union laws prohibited the formation of a federation of trade unions from different trades, sectors and industries, the MTUC could not be registered as a trade Union or a federation of trade unions. Instead, it had to be registered under the Societies Act as a society.

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