by K Veeriah
The fundamental right to freedom of association and the right to organise has been instrumental in the working class struggle for socioeconomic justice.
Even before International Labour Organization Convention 87 was adopted in 1948, the tenets of freedom of association and the right to organise were vibrant in then Malaya between the 1920s and 1948.
During that period, trade unions were organised and functioned as general labour unions, cutting across the bondage of establishment, trade, occupation or industry.
This culminated with the establishment of the Pan-Malayan General Labour Unions in 1946. In 1947 the group changed its name to the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU).
By 1947 the PMFTU was credited with having organised over 50% of the total workers in Malaya, representing about 85% of all existing trade unions.
If the status quo had been permitted to prevail, our trade union movement would have continued to function with freedom of association, without having to be confined to the restrictive definition of establishment, trade, occupation or industry – a contentious issue among trade unions with the amendments to the Trade Union Act 1959 passed by Parliament recently.
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Without doubt, these amendments have opened a Pandora’s box with differing viewpoints ranging from acceptance to objections.
Proponents argue that the amendments are consistent with ILO Convention 87.
Opponents contend that it would open the floodgates to a “multiplicity” of trade union representation.
Despite the divergent opinions, let’s look at the bigger picture.
The pro-capital government has put in place a gameplan to facilitate the smooth passage of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement.
Trade unions generally welcome a migration to internationally accepted labour standards, including Convention 87.
However, the standout reason by the human resources minister when tabling the amendments to the Trade Union Act irks me. In tabling the amendments, the minister clearly stated that they were to conform to conditions set by the CPTPP drafters.
The government’s decision to bring about changes to the Trade Union Act is obviously motivated by its desire to be business friendly – rather than to bring about a progressive transformation of the trade union ecosystem.
Simply put, it is a case of succumbing to external forces rather than an organic attempt to confirm to the core ILO conventions. If the amendments to the Trade Union Act are premised upon the preconditions set by the dominant partners of the CPTPP, we need to ponder whether we are compromising our sovereignty.
The government is said to have downplayed the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions of the CPTPP: the country may well be subjected to private arbitration, which would bypass the nation’s judicial system. This compromise our sovereignty.
So why did the government decide to amend the Trade Union Act and turn a blind eye to the ISDS? There can be no other interpretation except that this apparent move to conform to employment standards was aimed at accommodating the investor or business-friendly class – rather than a sincere attempt to uplift the working class.
In 1948 the colonists required trade unions to seek registration and, under this shield, castrated the progressive workers’ movement. Between the colonists and our government, the only distinction is that they are from different epochs. Both subscribe to the protection and promotion of the business elites.
After 65 years of toxic, obnoxious and suppressive labour legislation, the amendments to existing labour laws seem to be motivated by a desire to accommodate the requirements of the CPTPP and free trade agreements.
The amendments do not seem like a genuine attempt to change the trade union organisational landscape. Instead, the amendments to the Trade Union Act are but a creative manoeuvre to drive a wedge among the leadership of the trade union movement.
The real challenge is not the demerits of these labour law amendments but the abdication of our nation’s sovereignty through the CPTPP.
Let’s forge collectivism to demand that the government withdraws from the CPTPP, as the consequences for the nation’s sovereignty far outweigh the limited cost-benefits of this trade agreement.
K Veeriah is a veteran trade unionist based in Bukit Mertajam, Penang