A new horizontal approach in industrial relations in dealing with complex workers issues is made possible with these amendments, writes Ronald Benjamin.
The latest amendment to the Industrial Relations Act 1967 in Parliament is a great achievement for workers and the country as whole after a great struggle against the authoritarian neoliberal policies of the previous Barisan Nasional government, which in cohort with self-serving employers suppressed workers’ rights to freedom of association and conspired to muzzle the trade union movement.
Even though the latest amendments have shortcomings in terms of holistic proposals, the Ministry of Human Resources’ decision to transform vertical decision-making to a horizontal process that empowers, workers, unions and courts augurs well for the future of work.
The master-servant relationship, which was the vertical core of industrial relations behaviour of the past, has been loosened. Tripartite relationships, which were a mere formality in the past, have been given a new life.
In this new age of the digital economy, the power of horizontal relationships or networking has become critical to reducing poverty and inequality.
Towards this end, the current mode of thinking of the Malaysian Employers Federation and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress, which is more to do with self-preservation, is the antithesis to the future of work.
It is puzzling that both of them are together in opposing the amendments to the Industrial Relations Act – which is rooted in the old model of thinking based on elite control and initiative.
Their effort to torpedo this amendment in the Senate betrays the future development of the country in terms of labour empowerment.
The new amendments – in taking away ministerial powers to decide cases in the Industrial Court and workers can be represented by anyone besides lawyers – and the amendments that the establishment of trade unions will no longer be confined to trade, industry or occupation meet the futuristic context of a digital economy.
The current asymmetric context of industrial relations has been removed and Industrial Courts have been empowered.
There are three factors of significance in this latest amendment.
Firstly, in the current reality of digitalisation, artificial intelligence and the gig economy, workers could become fragmented due to a concentration of monopolistic power of large capitalists, who could use and control this intelligence, create bargaining powers that are lopsided or bring about specialised technologies that serve profits rather than human development.
It is in this context that the horizontal power of workers is needed without any need to go about an elite system of trade unionism.
There is a need for more unions in this country to bargain on equal terms with employers. The requires unions of agility and flexibility rooted in horizontal relationships.
Second, the existence of more unions would help in integrating society that is mired by ethnic and religious issues.
Currently, ethno-religious politicians tend to divide Malaysians through ethnic rhetoric for political purposes, when in fact a strong multi-ethnic worker trade union movement that cares more about socioeconomic progress would help neutralise this.
A strong multi-ethnic workers’ movement would challenge the ideology of ethno-religious leaders who tend to weaken the people’s bargaining power by playing the race or religion card.
Third, workers in the age of the digital economy should play a role as responsible consumers, rejecting any products that have an effect on the environment.
In the future of work, we need trade unions that are safety and environmentally conscious and able to integrate their struggle with the preservation of the environment.
A labour-environmental movement is needed to challenge the existing neoliberal ideology that places profit over human dignity and development and pollutes the environment, contributing to climate change.
Therefore, a new horizontal approach in industrial relations in dealing with complex workers issues is made possible with these amendments. A new chapter in industrial relations has emerged in a broader struggle of workers’ rights.