It has been brought to the attention of the Penang division of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress that the Jabatan Tenaga Kerja (Labour Department) of the Ministry of Human Resources is advising employers they can exclude meal breaks in determining the reduced weekly working hours of 45 hours under the amended Section 60A of the Employment Act 1955, which comes into force on 1 September.
In essence, what the Jabatan Tenaga Kerja is misrepresenting is that the current 48-hour working week be maintained just by a sleight of hand by deducting the meal breaks of 45 minutes from the aggregate – whereas the intention of Parliament, as we understand it, is to reduce the absolute weekly working hours to 45 hours.
We believe nowhere in this section of the Employment Act is there an explicit provision that excludes meal breaks in determining the weekly working hours of workers.
On the contrary, Section 60A(1)(d)(ii) in no uncertain language provides that:
an employee who is engaged in work which must be carried on continuously and which requires his continued attendance may be required to work for eight continuous hours inclusive of a period or periods of not less than forty-five minutes in the aggregate to have a meal (emphasis ours)
Given the very nature of workers’ employment – which must be carried out continuously and which requires their continued attendance (eg workers required to work on rotating shifts and in assembly lines) – there can be no other interpretation save that a 45-minute break to enable them to have a meal is included in the amended 45-hour working week.
We emphasise that the 45-minute break is mandated solely for the workers to avail themselves of the opportunity to have a meal and “not free to dispose of his own time and movements” as provided under Section 60A(9) of the Employment Act.
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Given the plain language of the law, we are baffled over how the Jabatan Tenaga Kerja is misleading employers to surmise that meal breaks be excluded from the amended 45-hour working week.
We believe the Minister of Human Resources, in moving the motion to reduce working hours, was guided by the objective of reducing real time spent by workers at the workplace.
Since that is the obvious objective, employers should not be permitted to circumvent the amendment based on the misplaced advice of the Jabatan Tenaga Kerja. Such a proposition would be diametrically opposed to the objectives of the amendments to strike a work-life balance for working citizens.
In our view, the reduction of hours spent at the workplace must be real and not illusionary.
It must, in reality, translate to a 45-hour working week, inclusive of meal breaks – and nothing less!
To maintain the status quo, ie the weekly 48 hours, by contending that it is permissible [to exclude] the statutory 45-minute meal break [when calculating the weekly working hours to conform with the reduced 45-hour working week] is nothing short of idiocy.
We, therefore, implore the human resources minister to direct his officers at the Jabatan Tenaga Kerja to stop their misrepresentation of the progressive objectives of the amendment, lest we stand shamed as hypocrites on the matter.
K Veeriah is secretary of the Penang division of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress