Weak state of Labour in Malaysia

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Workers in Malaysia can only have a brighter future if they seek to organise and mobilise themselves to effect political changes that are favourable to them, observes Toh Kin Woon.

I was at a meeting of the Penang Human Resource Development Council recently. At the meeting, we were told that the labour market situation overall was rather tight, with demand for all categories of workers exceeding that of supply.

In this labour-scarce situation, the Federal Government is forced to allow a liberal import of foreign workers, especially the semi-skilled ones. Failure to do so would mean an exodus of capital to labour abundant economies, such as China and Vietnam. This would lead to a loss of jobs.

Despite the import of foreign workers, there is still a shortage. At the higher skilled level, the shortfall faced by firms, especially in the electrical and electronics sub-sector, is even more acute and critical. Firms are thus forced to pinch staff, mainly local ones, from one another.

Socio-economic situation of workers

The overall macro-situation of the labour market looks good, with unemployment at a very low level. However, we need to look behind the overall macro-picture to get a more substantive position of the condition of workers in Malaysia.

For a start, the basic wage of direct production workers in multi-national electronic firms is still low, even in absolute terms. This wage suppression is done deliberately by capital coercing the state (the government) to allow a more elastic supply of labour through tapping the foreign labour markets.

As a result, many in the working class have difficulty coping with the stresses of urban living such as rising costs, poor public transport and increasing difficulty in accessing medical equipment needed for certain treatment at public hospitals.

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Next, the housing condition of many migrant workers is deplorable. Often, many of them live in crammed and dilapidated housing. There is no security of tenure, with labour, especially migrant and women workers, often falling victim to the vicissitudes of global markets. Many of them also fail to get their compensation as provided under the Employment Act if and when they are retrenched.

A weak trade union movement

The less than desirable state of the working class in our country is due in part to a weak trade union movement. The rate of unionisation is low, with union members perhaps making up less than 10 per cent of the total workforce. Workers thus lack organised strength to press their demands on the government and capital for more economic benefits and political rights.

The relatively weak position of the unions is partly the outcome of policies such as the legal prohibition on the formation of national trade unions in certain industries; permission for only the formation of in-house unions; the import of more foreign workers, who are not allowed to join unions, and privatisation.

The pro-Capital role of the federal government

Finally, the Barisan Federal Government is pro-capital in its management of industrial relations between Capital and Labour. This can be seen in the easier access of the representatives of Capital to the offices of wielders of political power.

Workers face great difficulties, which are often imposed by the state, in organising mass action to press their claims, even when these are legitimate. State institutions like the police will be mobilised to suppress even peaceful protests over unfair dismissals, wage rises, bonuses and the like.

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Overall, workers in Malaysia can only have a brighter future if they seek to organise and mobilise themselves to effect political changes that are favourable to them. A more competitive political system that weakens the hold of a group of elites that are pro-Capital on political power is one such change they ought to seek.

Toh Kin Woon is an Aliran member

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