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History of the labour movement in Malaysia

A vintage photo of estate workers

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In a three-part series, Charles Hector looks at the history of the workers’ struggle spanning from the struggle for independence, British suppression and the post-independence weakening of the movement.

In Malaysia, the trade union movement seems to be weakening, and the number of unions and the number of union members have not only stagnated but are also decreasing.

Of the 14.6m workers, only 924,961 are union members in 2017. In the private sector, union membership has been declining from 376,362 in 2014 to 354,313 in 2017.

Trade unions have been controlled by laws, first imposed by the British colonial government, which was continued post-independence by the Umno-dominated coalition government – today known as the Barisan Nasional.

Malaysian trade union and workers’ laws fall far short of minimum international standards, so much so when Malaysia wanted to be part of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, one of the preconditions was that Malaysia had to make significant amendments to its existing labour laws to make them more at par with minimum human rights and workers’ rights standards. The TPP may be no more, and still no amendments have been made.

When there is a violation of workers’ or trade union rights, sadly Malaysian unions still do not choose to struggle through pickets, strikes or campaigns against employers – but rather choose to simply lodge complaints with the relevant government institutions, which lead to court actions, which may also go through the appeal process lasting many years.

Sometimes, even when workers and unions do win, the remedies are lame and it really has no impact on employers; neither are they instrumental in bringing about changes in laws. Employers are happy with the state of affairs, for this method of resolution of ‘industrial disputes’ does not really have an impact on their businesses and profits; the only victims are workers and the unions.

What has happened to the trade union movement is an acceptance of the ‘limitations’ imposed on them by the authorities, and a choice of surviving within that ‘limited space’ with a strong adherence to the law, even if that law is unjust.

Very little effort has been made to reach out to the Malaysian public and even members of Parliament, state assembly members and senators for help in the fight for justice.

Since 1998, Malaysians generally have become braver and have started coming out in much larger numbers in peaceful assemblies to protest against wrongdoings and to demand changes. But alas, this has not moved the trade union movement or workers to do the same – despite the continued erosion of workers’ and trade union rights.

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The absence of a progressive, dynamic and new breed of workers’ leaders may also be a factor. Current existing union leaders seem to have been subdued – perhaps worried more for about the de-registration of unions or maybe really their own financial security and their union employees.

The struggle for better rights and justice always will have an element of risk, and unless unions and their leaders are brave enough to fight for justice and rights, things will not change.

Union leaders have also forgotten how to use their biggest asset: the large numbers of workers acting in solidarity. Unions leaders today often choose to act alone, in a representative capacity.

But most employers and the government are really not at all worried because they believe that Malaysian unions are weak and these leaders really do not have the capacity to move their membership to act collectively.

Sadly, even when pickets are carried out, the number of union members who come out and participate is such a small percentage of the union membership. The last few large pickets and/or protests that happened in Malaysia were carried out by migrant workers, and many of them were not even unionised.

What happened in Malaysian Airlines when the company decided to get rid of about 6,000 workers is an indication of the state of the labour movement. These were all mostly unionised workers, and the unions affected had more than 10,000 members, mmaybe even closer to 20,000. But not a single mass protest or picket involving thousands of union members took place.

To appreciate what happened to the Malaysian trade union movement, which was at one time very strong, we need to recall the history of the labour movement in Malaya, particularly before the subjugation of the labour movement by the British.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), sadly, is a creature of British manipulation, emerging after the stronger unions, federation of unions and workers’ leaders were suppressed.

One would after expected that the MTUC and the Malaysian labour movement would have resurrected after Malaysia gained independence from the British in 1957, but sadly that did not happen.

As time moves on, workers themselves forget the past,\ and how strong the labour movement was at one time in the history of Malaysia. This lack of historical knowledge and lack of education and empowerment of workers and union members by existing ‘leaders’ keeps unions weak.

For many workers today, union is simply a ‘subscription’ deducted automatically from their salary by employers and transmitted to their unions, and the little benefit that they get from collective bargaining agreements, which provide for salary increments and bonuses.

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Unions now also seldom have regular meetings for their members, if at all, which has been proven to be essential for strengthening solidarity, enhancing knowledge of members and generally strengthening unions.

The lack of involvement of members in decision-making and union actions has also developed into an overall lack of interest in unions. The lack of development of new leaders is problematic, and we find the same old people retaining union leadership position for years and years.

Things need to change if unionism and the labour movement in Malaysia is to become stronger and effective. But standing in the way sadly are sometimes the existing leaders of unions. It is easy to blame the government and existing laws, but if workers and unions are not ready to fight for better rights together, then there will not be any improvement – and rights and ‘hurdles’ in law will simply continue to increase.

The union way must be the ‘union way’ – a struggle together with all workers standing together, and not a representative struggle of one or two leaders alone, without the participation or support of the rest of union members.

So, let us recall the history of the strong labour movement in Malaysia and what happened.

Labour movement’s involvement in the struggle for independence

The fact that the Malaysian trade union movement played a significant role in the political, economic and socio-cultural life of Malaysia has been forgotten by many. The labour movement did actively struggle for independence from the British colonial powers and contributed significantly in the determination of the future of Malaysia – including the drafting of the Malaysian Constitution.

But alas, all that was in the past, and the trade unions have been systematically weakened and isolated from involvement in the life of the nation, first by the British colonial masters and thereafter by the Umno-led coalition that has governed Malaysia since independence.

This weakening, nay annihilation, of the labour movement continues to this day by the actions and omissions of a government that seems to not just have embraced neo-liberalism, but is also seen today as being pro-business. Government-owned and controlled companies, of late, are also seen to be violating workers’ rights.

The future of the labour movement in Malaysia now depends on the workers and the trade unions, who must appreciate the history of the Malaysian labour movement. They must decide whether they want to struggle to make the labour movement once again strong and relevant or just allow the slow withering away of not just the movement but also workers’ and trade union rights.

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Origins of union: protection and promotion of rights

The worker alone is weak but workers united are strong. Workers have always naturally come to a realisation that only together as workers will they be able to fight and get better rights and justice at their workplace. As such, more likely than not, organised workers’ solidarity actions in one form or another have existed ever since there have been workers in Malaysia.

For Malaysia, the advent of the workers’ struggle would have taken place in the rubber plantations and the tin mines, where labour primarily consisted of workers of Indian and Chinese origin – a reality when Malay workers resisted working in such mines and plantations, choosing rather self employment, small businesses, farming, fishing and the civil service. The majority of the workers in the civil service were Malay.

General labour unions

The origin of organised labour in the form of workers’ unions in Malaysia dates back to the 1920s. Back then, workers, who were primarily of Chinese and Indian origin in the private sector and Malay workers in the civil service, formed what was known as general labour unions (GLUs).

General labour union membership was generally open to any worker, with no restrictions to any particular industry, sector or workplace, unlike what we have today in Malaysia. These unions were generally formed in different geographical areas all around Malaya. They attracted many workers and were strong. In the struggle for rights, history shows that many actions were taken including strikes.

The labour movement then was not restricted to merely employer-employee matters, but also played an active role in the political, economic and socio cultural life of the country. The labour movement, together with other pro-independence groups, was also actively involved in the struggle for independence from the British. They were also active in the struggle against Japanese occupation forces during World War Two.

An example of a union then was the Selangor Engineering Mechanics Association, which was registered in 1928, maybe one of the first registered trade unions.

The general labour unions and many of the unions also started coming together as coalitions and federations – and finally into the Pan Malayan General Labour Union (PMGLU) and the Singapore GLU.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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