Trade unions – to join or not to join?

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On balance, unions provide job security and protect the interests of workers in uncertain times, says Ambigapathi Samarasan, who weighs in on what it takes to form a union.

Why do we need unions? To protect workers from exploitation by employers.

In the 1960s and 70s, strong unions protected workers’ rights in Malaysia.

But with the arrival of electronics multinational corporations, one of the attractions was the absence of a national union for electronic workers. This allowed foreign companies to protect their interests rather than their workers’ – many of whom had voted for the government. The practice slowly crept into other sectors as well.

Encounters with unions

Penang, 1982

My first experience with unions was with an electronics multinational corporation in 1982.

During the interview, I was asked about unions.

I replied I am always in favour of unions. I did not know then that the company was “anti-union” and its human resources department was closing monitoring staff who may have had thoughts of forming a union.

Another factory, Mostek, was retrenching their staff at the time, and their workers started to protest with the help of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC).

The company I was with was afraid its staff would join the Mostek workers in forming a union. The managing director informed all managers and supervisors that if any of the staff under them were to join in the protest, they would be penalised and may even lose their jobs.

My colleague and friend was on his way home, but unluckily for him, he met an old friend who was protesting with the Mostek workers.

One of the human resources staff from my company spotted this encounter and informed the management of my company.

My friend was then terminated with just small compensation. It took him six months to find another job with a lower salary in another state.

Kulim, 1990

I later moved to another company in Kulim. The staff were trying to form a union, and one of them was secretly leading it.

The company hired a new human resources manager. Until then, it had not had such a manager. The new guy was an ex-unionist experienced in union matters.

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I was under the impression that he was coming to help the workers form a union, as the managing director had informed us that we were free to go ahead without fear.

But it was the other way round: the new manager was brought in to stop the formation of a union. He was trying to identify the leader who was organising the workers to form the union.

I was friendly with this human resources manager and told him to help the poor workers to form a union. (As a senior staff member, I was not allowed to join the union, which was then only meant for those earning below RM1,000.)

The human resource manager was actually using me to get information about the union activities. He also informed the managing director that I was the leader of the union.

I was harassed and monitored by my own manager. Fortunately, I was able to get another job with a better salary and I left. Later someone from the MTUC informed the managing director that I was not the person behind the formation of the union.

Taiping, 2007

Some time later, I moved to Taiping. There, we had foreign workers who were not unionised, and we informed them not to to form a union or to strike.

But they did strike when there was a salary dispute and some had problems with their overtime pay. The company later agreed to their demands, and the strike was called off. (The same thing happened in another factory in Taiping: the foreign workers went on strike, even without a union, and they got what they demanded.)

The local workers earning less than RM500 were under the union. Over the years, as they received their increments, their wages rose above RM500 but they were still in the union.

Some staff who earned more than RM500 did not want to be part of the union out of fear. But when the company was performing badly, their salaries were frozen: no increments for three or four years.

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In contrast, the union staff received their yearly increments. In one case, the operators were getting more than the supervisor, who was not in the union.

Benefits of unions

MAS has been ailing for many years. One of the factors sometimes cited is the high salaries of the staff, who have a strong union. This makes it difficult for the company to retrench its staff – but that did not stop the airlines from laying off staff a few years ago.

But Air Asia has been running without a union and is doing well. Some companies use this as an example to prevent their staff from forming a union.

Back then, the government did not allow the electronics factory workers to form a national union.

But the government allowed civil servants to form a union. This made the civil service an attractive place for people to work as their jobs were safe.

Recently the World Bank reported that the performance of the civil service has been declining. Even the prime minister called on civil servants to correct themselves and improve their performance. I wonder how many of the civil servants will be able to survive in the private sector, where the majority of the workers are not unionised.

Banking is another union-backed sector. One of my friends started work as a clerk in 1980 with a monthly salary of RM300. His salary is now RM5,500. Can you show me how many clerks get this kind of salary in a non-unionised environment?

Having a union also helps in getting promotions as senior staff are given priority even if they are are not performing well.

There was one employee in the public sector whose main objective was to make sure he took all the medical, hospital, sports and study leave he was entitled to. Try that in a non-unionised company, and see what happens.

Unions are there to help workers to get a lawyer to take up their case if they are in trouble with the company. For example, a bank employee who took medical leave to campaign for his friend standing for election was terminated. But his union lawyer fought for him, and he got his job back.

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In contrast, a supervisor who was on medical leave was later found going to a night club. Unluckily for him, his manager was also there, and the next day, he was terminated after an inquiry.

Workers who are not in unions need to get their own lawyers to take up their case if they are terminated. Some may be innocent but they cannot afford to hire lawyers to fight for them.

Forming a union: 7 tips

My advice to those who want to form a union:

  1. Get advice from the MTUC, and get them to guide you.
  2. Be prepared to be harassed and threatened by your employers. Employers may use all the tricks they can to stop you – freezing promotions and increments, transferring you to another section or even worse to another branch far way from your home.
  3. Very important: get a lawyer you may know to help you even though the company has not terminated you. Get the lawyer to write a letter to the company the moment you are harassed or threatened; make a police report if necessary. Once the company gets a letter from your lawyer, it will calm down or the threats will stop.
  4. Most important: you need to get 51% of the staff to sign up to join the union. Be prepared to get another job if you feel you cannot form a union.
  5. Once you have started a union, write to the press to inform them – after official recognition of the union has been served on the employer.
  6. Best get an outsider to work on this rather than you; this is where the MTUC may be able to help you.

Finally, the best thing is get our elected representatives to pass a law in Parliament requiring the government to ensure that all workers have unions to protect their interests – just like how we have the Employees’ Provident Fund and Socso to protect workers. That way, employers won’t be able to reject the formation of unions.

Ambigapathi Samarasan recently participated in an Aliran writers’ workshop with the theme “Writing for Change in New Malaysia”, where he wrote this piece.

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In Malaysia let it be Trade Unions, Teachers, Railway, Airline, Banking or what ever existing Union….. are all toothless & spineless. They only bark for their own Salary Increment, Bonus and benefits. They never get together to oppose / protest against the Government on policy or matters involving Malaysians Racial Unity / Discrimination, Standard / Cost of living, Education or Health Policy for the general well beings of every individual Malaysians.
Classic Eg; Taxi driver Association.
They protest. Government throw’s them 2 new tires and all are silent.