HISTORY OF THE LABOUR MOVEMENT IN MALAYSIA
(From British Colonialism, Independence…)
- Charles Hector
In Malaysia, the trade union movement seems to be weakening and the number of unions and union membership has not only stagnated but is also decreasing. Of the about 14.6 million workers, there are only about 924,961 workers that are union members in 2017. In the private sector, union membership has been declining from about 376,362 in 2014, to about 354,313 in 2017.
Trade Unions have been controlled by laws, first imposed by the British colonial government, which was continued post-independence by UMNO dominated coalition government – today known as the Barisan Nasional.
Malaysian trade union and worker laws fall far short of minimum international standards, so much so when Malaysia wanted to be part of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), one of the pre-conditions was that Malaysia makes significant amendments to its existing labour laws to make it more at par with minimum human rights and worker rights standards. The TPPA may be no more, and still there has been no amendments done yet.
When there is a violation of worker/trade union rights, sadly Malaysian unions still do not choose to struggle through pickets, strikes or campaigns against employers – but rather choose to simply lodge complaints with the relevant government institutions, which leads to court actions, which may also go through the appeal process lasting for many years. Sometimes, even when workers and unions do win, the remedies are lame and it really has no impact on employers and/or instrumental in bringing changes in laws. Employers are very happy with the state of affairs, for this method of resolution of ‘industrial dispute’ do not really impact its business and profits – the only victims are workers and unions.
What has happened to the trade union movement is an acceptance of the ‘limitations’ imposed on them by the authorities, and a choice of surviving within that ‘limited space’ with a strong adherence to the law, even if that law is unjust. There is also very little effort to reach out to the Malaysian public and/or even Member of Parliaments, State Assemblypersons and/or Senators for help in the fight for justice.
Since 1998, Malaysians generally have become braver, and have started coming out in much larger numbers in peaceful assemblies to protest wrongdoings and demand changes – but alas, this has not moved the trade union movement or workers to do the same – despite the continued erosion of worker and trade union rights.
The absence of a progressive, dynamic and new breed of worker leaders may also be a factor. Current existing union leaders seem to have been compromised – worried more for about the de-registration of unions, or maybe really their own financial security and their union employees. Struggle for better rights and justice always will have an element of risk, and unless unions and their leaders are brave enough to fight for justice and rights, then things will not change.
Union leaders have also forgotten how to use their biggest asset, being the large numbers of workers acting in solidarity. Now, unions leaders today, many a time choose to act alone, in a representative capacity – but most employers and the government are really not at all worried because they believe that Malaysian unions are weak, and these leaders really do not have the capacity of even moving their membership to act collectively. Even when pickets are done, sadly the number of union members that come out and participate is such a small percentage of the union membership. The last few large pickets and/or protests that happened in Malaysia was done by migrant workers, and many of them were not even unionized.
What happened in Malaysian Airlines, when the company decided to get rid of about 6,000 workers is an indication of the state of the labour movement. These were all mostly unionized workers, and the union/s affected had more than 10,000 member(maybe even closer to 20,000), but there was not a single mass protest or picket involving thousands of union members that happened.
To appreciate what happened to the Malaysian trade union movement, which was at one time very strong, we need to recall the history of the labour movement in Malaya, particularly before the subjugation of the labour movement by the British.
The Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC), sadly is a creature of British manipulation, emerging after the stronger Unions, Federation of Unions and worker leaders were suppressed.
One would after expected that the MTUC and the Malaysian labour movement would have resurrected after Malaysia gained independence from the British in 1957, but sadly that did not happen.
As time moves on, workers themselves forget the past, and how strong the labour movement was at one time in the history of Malaysia. This lack of historical knowledge, and lack of education and empowerment of workers and union members by existing ‘leaders’ keeps unions weak. For many workers today, union is simply a ‘subscription’ deducted automatically from their salary by employers and transmitted to their unions, and the little benefit that they get from Collective Bargaining Agreements, which are usually salary increments and bonuses.
Union now also seldom have regular meetings for its members, if at all, which has been proven to be essential for the strengthening of solidarity, enhancing knowledge of members and generally strengthening unions. The lack of involving members in decision making and union actions, has also developed in an overall lack of interest in unions. The lack of development of new leaders is problematic, and we find the same old people retaining union leadership position for years and years.
Things need to change, if unionism and the labour movement in Malaysia is to become stronger and effective, but standing in the way sadly are sometimes the existing leaders of unions. It is easy to blame government and existing laws, but if workers and unions are not ready to fight for better rights together as a union, then there will not be any improvement – and rights and ‘hurdles’ in law will simply continue to increase.
The union way must be the ‘union way’ – a struggle together with all workers standing together, and not a representative struggle of one or two leaders alone, without the participation or support of the rest of union members.
So, let us recall the history of the strong labour movement in Malaysia and what happened.
MALAYSIAN LABOUR MOVEMENT WAS INVOLVED IN THE STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE
The fact that the Malaysian trade unions movement played a significant role in the political, economic and socio-cultural life of Malaysia has been forgotten by many. The labour movement did actively struggle for independence from the British colonial powers, and contributed significantly even in the determination of the future of Malaysia – including also the drafting of the Malaysian Constitution.
But alas, all that was in the past, and the trade unions have been systematically weakened and isolated from involvement in the life of the nation, first by the British colonial masters and thereafter by the UMNO-led coalition that has governed Malaysia since independence. This weakening, nay annihilation, of the labour movement still continues on today by the actions and/or omissions of a government that seem to not just have embraced neo-liberalism, but is also seen today as being pro-business. Government owned and controlled companies, of late, also is seen to be violating worker rights.
The future of the labour movement in Malaysia now depends on the workers and the trade unions, who really must appreciate the history of the Malaysian labour movement and decide whether they would want to struggle to make the labour movement once again strong and relevant, or just allow the slow withering away of not just the movement but also worker and trade union rights.
ORIGINS OF UNION – PROTECTION AND PROMOTIONS OF RIGHTS
Worker alone is weak but workers united are strong. Workers have always naturally come to a realization that only together as workers will they be able to fight and get better rights and justice at their workplace. As such, more likely than not, there have been organized worker solidarity actions in one form or another ever since there have been workers in Malaysia.
For Malaysia, the advent of worker struggle would have been in the rubber plantations and the tin mines, whose labour was primarily workers of Indian and Chinese origins – a reality when then the Malay worker resisted working in such mines and plantations, choosing rather self employment, small businesses, farming, fishing and the civil service. The majority of the workers in the civil service were Malay.
General Labour Unions (GLUs) and unions
The origin of organized labour in the form of worker unions in Malaysia dates back to the 1920s. Workers then, who were primarily of Chinese and Indian origins in the private sector and Malay workers in the civil service formed what was known as General Labour Unions (GLUs). The GLU membership was generally open to any worker, with no restrictions to any particular industry, sector or workplace, unlike what we have today in Malaysia. GLUs were generally formed in different geographical areas all around Malaya. It attracted many workers and was strong. In the struggle for rights, history shows that many actions were taken including strikes.
The labour movement then was not restricted to merely employer-employee matters, but also played an active role in the political, economic and socio cultural life of the country. The labour movement, together with other pro-independence groups, was also actively involved in the struggle for independence from the British. They were also active in the struggle against Japanese occupation forces during World War II.
An example of a union then was the Selangor Engineering Mechanics Association, which was registered in 1928, maybe one of the first registered trade union.
The GLUs and many of the unions also started coming together as coalitions and federations – and finally into the Pan Malayan General Labour Union(PMGLU) and the Singapore GLU.
British Moves to Weaken Labour Movement – Laws & Other Strategies
The British colonial powers, worried about the growing labour movement, decided to try to control and influence it. The British colonial government were especially concerned about the perceived influence that the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) and other pro-independence groups had in the labour movement.
Methods the British employed to weaken and control the labour movement included the enactment of laws like the Trade Union Ordinance of 1940, and through the appointment of the Trade Union Advisor.
Trade Union Ordinance and Laws – Registration and Control
One of the primary objects of this Trade Union Ordinance was to stabilise the labour situation in the interest of increasing production to sustain Britain's economy and its war efforts. It was not concerned about worker or trade union rights.
The Malayan economy, at that time, was geared to support the wartime needs of Britain. As such labour and trade union rights, and struggles for better rights that existed, had to be suppressed and subordinated to what the British considered more important – Imperial Defence. Malaya then was considered the ‘dollar arsenal’ for the British empire, and the 1940 Ordinance was enacted for the purpose of ensuring a continued flow of revenue to the British empire.
The stated object in the title of this 1940 Ordinance was, ``An Enactment for the Registration and Control of Trade Unions''. Its declared purpose was the fostering of ``the right kind of responsible leadership amongst workers and at the same time to discourage or reduce such influence as the professional agitators may have had and to reduce the opportunities or the excuse for the activities of such persons.''[i] It was clearly to weaken the existing labour movement, and transform existing trade unions and union leadership into what the British wanted.
The existing worker solidarity was to be destroyed, and a ‘divide and weaken’ policy was the object. Private sector workers were to be separated from public sector workers, and workers from different industry and sectors were to be kept apart. The role of unions were to be limited to simply ‘industrial relations’ matters – matters between workers and employers only. Unions were no longer allowed to be involved in matters concerning the nation – including the struggle for independence.
This new 1940 Trade Union Ordinance now required that unions in Malaya had to be registered (or rather re-registered), and this meant an application to the government, government approval and registration. This allowed the government not to re-register some of the stronger unions, and federation of unions across different sectors/industry.
As such, the new law prevented government (or public sector) employees and private sector employees belonging to the same union. The affiliation of unions to other classes of unions was also prevented. Restriction was also imposed on the usage of union funds.
The registration rules were somewhat restrictive; for instance government employees and non-government employees could not anymore belong to the same union or even to affiliate itself to unions of other classes of workers. Union funds usage was also restricted - it could no longer be used for a variety of other purposes including political purposes. Under these rules, all the existing GLUs (or even other Federation of Unions across different sectors, industry or occupation) were un-registerable and therefore could no longer operate legally.
The new Trade Union Ordinance and laws that came into force in 1946 effectively killed the GLUs, who could no longer be registered (or re-registered) under the new law, and as such could no more able to operate legally. It also killed off many stronger unions.
What is of interest was that this new policy and laws did not apply to the union movement in Britain and the United Kingdom, just for Malaysia. British unions to date are still involved in the political struggles, and even political parties like the Labour Party, in the United Kingdom.
Pan Malaysian General Labour Union (PMGLU) - Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU)
In 1947, the Pan Malayan General Labour Union, which was established in 1946, who later changed its name to Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU), boasted a membership of 263,598, and this represented more than half the total workforce in Malaysia. 85 percent of all existing unions were part of the PMFTU[ii]
The attitude of the Malayan worker was more assertive during this period; for instance, "A strike was reported of Chinese and Indian hospital workers because they no longer wanted to be addressed as 'boy' . . . .", and workers began to see their subjection to physical punishments as unacceptable.[iii] "Tamil trade unionists refused to suffer any longer the use of the derogatory term 'Kling'. Estate workers no longer dismounted from their bicycles when a dorai, or planter, passed by."[iv] In short, unions concern went beyond limited industrial relations matters or employee-employer matters concerning work rights and working conditions.
The British Colonial Government wanted to crush this this development, and the ever strengthening labour movement, decided to ‘reconstruct’ the organized labour movement in Malaysia and Singapore.
While the Singapore Trade Union Adviser, S.P.Garett, allowed the Singapore GLU (SGLU) to reorganize as a Federation and operate legally without registering which led to the formation of the Singapore Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) in August 1946.
In Malaya, however, the then Trade Union Adviser John Alfred Brazier, did not want the same for Malaya – he did not want the PMGLU to be recognized or continue to exist. He ruled that all the branch unions had to register, and that thereafter there be no relationship between any of the newly registered unions with the PMGLU (that later came to be known as the PMFTU). The registered unions were not allowed to seek guidance or remit funds to PMFTU. This created problems for the PMFTU, that ultimately led to its demise.
The Trade Union Ordinance required the registration(or re-registration) of Trade Unions according to sector or industry, and this allowed the government to deny registration to unions they considered strong, unacceptable and/or ‘militant unions’
Until the proclamation by the British colonial authorities of the state of "Emergency" in Malaya and Singapore in 1948, most of the plantation trade unions and federations of plantation trade unions in Malaya were affiliated to the PMFTU. It is of interest, that the British may have considered the PMFTU as a bigger threat than even the Communist Party of Malaya(CPM), for the PMFTU was outlawed even before the CPM was.
Trade Union Adviser
Another method that was employed by the British, was to try and influence the Trade Unions, and to this end in 1945, a British Trade Unionist, John Alfred Brazier, was appointed by the government as Trade Union Adviser. English educated middle class individuals were groomed and trained to replace the then existing progressive worker leadership of trade unions. One of the targeted unions were the Plantation Worker Unions.
The government appointed trade union adviser whose objective was not to strengthen but rather to weaken the labour movement in Malaya which included to eliminate its role in the political, socio-economic and cultural life of the nation, and narrowly restrict its activities to ‘industrial relations’, that is the disputes between employers and workers.
This was unnatural development as workers are also citizens and human persons who live in the country. Who wins the Federal, State and Local government elections is material – the wrong people and parties may mean anti-worker and anti-trade union policies and laws. This restriction did lead to further erosion of worker rights and the power of negotiation for better terms. If water, basic amenity and the cost of living go up, it also has a direct impact on the lives of the worker and their families, and to bar unions and workers from taking up or speaking on such issues were absurd.
It must not be forgotten that workers and their unions had played a very significant role in the struggle for independence of Malaya from the British colonial government. They also played a significant role in developing the Constitution of Malaya - now Malaysia.
The PMFTU, Clerical Unions of Penang, Malacca, Selangor and Perak, and the Peasant's Union were a part of the Pan-Malayan Council of Joint Action (PMCJA), with Tan Cheng Lock as chairman and Gerald de Cruz as Secretary-General, [v] who actively campaigned on matters concerning the Malaysian Constitution.
It must be reiterated that what the British did to the trade unions in Malaysia was contrary to the accepted position and role of trade unions in England. To this day, trade unions in the United Kingdom continue to play an active role in the political life until today, being still very much affiliated to the Labour Party. The manner in which the British treated the labour movement in Malaya and Singapore, was not at all the same the way they treated their own labour movement in Britain. In Malaysia, the object was clearly ‘union busting’ for the benefit of employers and businesses, most of which were British owned or controlled.
Other Laws – Crackdown on the Labour Movement
Besides the new labour laws, The British colonial government also used other laws to suppress or carry out ‘union busting’, a term we use today.
In 1947, the ordinary trespassing law was used to keep union organisers from meeting and speaking with workers in plantations. For instance in late March 1947, a large police force came to the Dublin estate in Kedah to arrest a Federation of Trades Unions official for trespassing as he was speaking to a group of workers there. When the workers closed ranks around the official, the police opened fire, killing one worker and wounding five[vi].
In a clash at the Bedong estate on 3 March 1947, between police and workers, 21 workers were injured; whereby "the strike leader died of injuries received at the hands of the police a few days later". 61 of these workers were charged and sentenced to six months' imprisonment.[vii]
The existing law then was that workers could not be terminated just for exercising their right to strike – which was a worker’s right. But in October 1947, the Supreme Court in the case of three woman rubber tappers who were contesting in court that their dismissal for striking was wrong, the court ruled that striking was a breach of contract and that the dismissal was justified. This was a major change of law and policy.
Unionist were also convicted for intimidation. In November 1947 S. Appadurai, vice-president of the Penang Federation of Trade Unions and chairman of the Indian section of the Penang Harbour Labour Association was charged for having written to an employer warning him against using ‘blacklegs’. ‘Backlegs’ are persons who acts against the interests of a trade union by continuing to work during a strike, or taking over a striker's job during a strike. In law then and before this, it was wrong for employers to use ‘backlegs’ when workers are on strike. However, in this case, the said union leader was found guilty and sent to prison.
In January 1948, K. Vanivellu, secretary of the Kedah Federation of Rubber Workers Unions was charged for having written to an employer asking him to reinstate 14 workers who had been dismissed for striking and suggesting that if he did not, the remaining workers might leave the job.
Hence, various other laws and the courts were also used wrongly, for the purpose of union busting pursuant to the new British policy to weaken the labour movement in Malaysia,
New Amendments to the Trade Union Ordinance - 1948
The Trade Union Ordinance, was again amended to weaken unions. New amendments to the Trade Union Ordinance were passed by the Federal Legislative Council on 31 May 1948. The amendments were in three parts.
The first stipulated that a trade union official must have at least three years experience in the industry concerned.
The second prohibited anyone convicted of certain criminal offenses (notably intimidation and extortion, which were common charges against unionists) from holding trade union office.
The third stated that a Federation could only include workers from one trade or industry[viii]
The first provision was seen as "a measure designed to exclude educated 'outsiders'.”, It also created problems because many workers worked different industry and sector because work then available during that time was not permanent – more of a seasonal or transient nature. It is like what is happening now, with the use of the precarious short term contracts, where after the end of contracts, workers have no choice to find another job – more often than not in a different industry and sector.
The third part that insisted that a Federation could only include workers from one trade or industry effectively killed the PMFTU and even the SFTU. This divided private sector workers further, and it also affected public sector workers – because it prevented workers from different sectors and industries from coming together and fighting for better rights and common issues.
PMFTU outlawed in June 1948
On 12 June 1948, the British colonial government finally outlawed PMFTU. This is interesting considering the fact that only later in July 1948, was the Malaysian Communist Party and other left wing groups made illegal. Can we say that for the British colonial government, the bigger concern or threat was the labour movement and unions - not the Communist party?
Many of the leaders of the labour movement were arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced. S.A. Ganapathy, for example, who was the first President of the 300,000-strong Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU), was hanged by the British in May 1949. He was said to be on the way to the police to surrender a firearm he found, when he was arrested by the police and sentenced to hang in Pudu Jail.
Council of Trade Unions – Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC)
Effectively, the British colonial government succeeded in crushing the labour movement in Malaya. With the requirement of registration, and the powers vested in the Registrar of Trade Unions, the government could now eliminate the stronger ‘trouble maker’ trade unionist and trade unions, and break up the labour movement according to sectors/industries – divide and rule.
In January 1949, there only remained 163 registered Trade Unions with a total membership of only 68,814. In comparison, PMFTU had a membership of about 263,598 – which represented more than 50% of the total workforce.
The Council of Trade Unions was formed and they organized the Conference of Malayan Trade Union Delegates on 27-28 February 1949, and this gave birth to what is today known as the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC),
Now, since the amended new trade union laws prohibited the formation of Federation of Trade Unions from different trades, sectors and industry, MTUC could not be registered as a Trade Union or a Federation of Trade Unions, and had to be registered under the Societies Act as a society.
1957 – Independent Malaya & Continued Weakening of the Labour Movement
On 31st August 1957, Malaya got its independence from the British but alas the position of the new UMNO-led coalition government that ruled since then until now did not defer much from their past British colonial masters.
Malaysia may have gained independence, but alas workers and trade unions continued to be denied independence. They continued to be oppressed and suppressed, by the UMNO-led government – who adopted and continued the British ‘divide and rule’ policy and laws, and the restrictions and control with regard to trade union activities, trade union funds and even trade union leadership restrictions.
The struggle for independence of Malaysia took many forms ranging from armed struggle to diplomatic negotiations, and for some the handing over power to the UMNO-led coalition was not real independence, and some continued to struggle on. UMNO-BN government, and some leaders, continues to be confused as to who were fighting to gain our independence from – the British or the Communist Party of Malaya(and others). Members of the police and military serving the British colonial government are shockingly still seen as ‘heroes of independence’, and the recent invitation of 31 British army veterans to participate in the 2017 Independence Day celebration highlights this continued confusion.
Some suggest that the British choice in handing over power to the UMNO led coalition, a ‘friend’, was basically to ensure the protection of British owned companies and assets, and the continued flow of resources and profits from Malaysia to Britain. All these may not matter, as we now accept that Malaysia is an independent state. What matters is that workers, unions and the labour movement continue to be oppressed and/or stifled even many years after independence.
The role and influence of the labour movement in socio-economic and political life and future of the nation continues to be slowly eroded as the current government’s policy is perceived to be pro-businesses and employers. A greater concern seems to be to ensure smooth unhindered operation of business and profits, something that may not change soon as the government too now are employers in the growing number of government owned and/or controlled private businesses.
The Labour Movement today and in the future
Malaysia continues with a ‘divide and rule’ policy of the trade union movement – permitting only unions based on occupation, sector and industry, and disallowing the formation of unions or federation of unions across different sectors, industry and occupation. Private sector workers and public sector workers are still prevented from belonging to common unions. Malaysian Trade Union Congress(MTUC) and CUEPACS continue to be registered as societies.
Control of the trade union movement, union and worker rights and powers, was then justified as Malaysia needed to attract the foreign investor to set up factories, and hence make available more jobs and income for Malaysia. Low wages and a passive workforce makes Malaysia attractive, and the fact that there has been no strikes for almost 4 or more decades is seen as positive.
Well, such justifications may be good for businesses and maybe even Malaysia, but it certainly is not helping workers – their wages still remain low, and their rights continue to be eroded. A perusal of laws, will see that the UMNO-BN government has been continuously eroding worker rights through various amendments of existing laws, and even new laws. In a previous article entitled, ‘Worker and trade union rights in BN-ruled Malaysia’, I have dealt with this erosion of rights.
Worker rights education is also not a priority, and it is not even in our education curriculum. Hence, many workers are not even aware of existing rights in Malaysia, and more importantly how they can claim it. The government also is not bothered in the inspection and enforcement of worker and trade union rights, safe maybe occupational safety and health rights.
A perusal of the regular Ministry of Human Resources Statistics on Employment and Labour (Statistik Pekerjaan dan Perburuhan) provides no figures of the number of inspection and enforcement of worker and trade union rights, save for matters concerning occupational safety and health, eventhough the law provides for the power of inspection and enforcement to these rights, and this sadly suggests that Malaysia may not even be interested in protecting existing worker and trade union rights. These inspection must be done randomly, and/or based on receipt of information. To not act until worker victims to lodge formal complaints, in this Malaysian working environment, when many employers easily tend to terminate workers who lodge formal complaints is not reasonable – like other rights, inspection and enforcement must be done randomly or on receipt of information of alleged violations coming from any sources.
Union busting continues. Union Presidents and leaders are easily terminated for issuing public statements. Union members are terminated for sending memorandum to election candidates to get their commitment to struggle for better worker rights. Workers participating in legal pickets are arrested for ‘making noise’. Union registration, and ‘recognition’ processes are delayed, not expedited, not just by government bodies, but also by allowing long drawn out litigations initiated by employers in court challenging even Minister’s decisions.
Malaysia finally introduced ‘Minimum Wage’, which today is RM1,000 a month, which is absurd when the government itself acknowledge that families with income less that RM4,000 are in need of government assistance, the BR1M(Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia). Logically, assuming a family unit has 2 income earners, the Minimum Wage should really be set at RM2,000. Again, even here, there was not only delays granted to employers, but also a lack of enforcement against errant employers.
Unions remain weak, for even when about 6,000 out of about 20,000 employees of the Malaysian Airlines, whereby the majority were unionized workers, were terminated, there was not even a single mass protest or legally permissible picket by these unions.
Hence, the labour movement in Malaysia may have successfully been weakened, and the reasons may not simply been the laws and government policies – but also a weak fearful union leadership and members. The unwillingness of workers and unions to stand for their rights and fight for better worker and trade union rights is a major problem – no struggle will mean no improvement. To depend solely on the government to bring about improvement of rights is foolish, when victims fail to highlight and campaign.
Malaysia’s worker and trade union laws, fall short of existing international standards. This became evident recently, when as a precondition of being the part of the TPPA(Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement), the United States of America insisted significant amendments to Malaysian worker and trade union laws. It is good that some countries, as a matter of policy and law, today have adopted a policy that they will not enter into agreements and/or trade agreements with countries that do not at the very least have a minimum standard of human rights and worker rights. In response, Malaysia started reviewing with the intending of amending labour laws, and it is hoped that this will still be done despite that fact the TPPA may be no more.
It is rather confusing, embarrassing and sad that some trade union leaders in Malaysia still consider Trade Union Adviser John Alfred Brazier, one of the tools used by the British to carry out ‘union busting’ of the Malaysian labour movement in the 1940s, as the father of Trade Unionism in Malaysia. But then, of late, some unions have gone beyond just focusing on employer-employee issues, into addressing other more pressing concerns of socio-economic, politic and cultural issues affecting the nation – like the increase of cost of living brought about by the introduction of new taxation law like the GST, and government failures possibly also kleptocracy and corruption that have caused significant losses of monies, and has also impacted the economy of the country.
MTUC and other trade unions, also did in the past endorse and campaign for some candidates contesting in the General Elections, that saw the UMNO-BN government reacting and removing temporarily the MTUC from its position as the body representing workers in Malaysia and at the ILO(International Labour Organisation).
There will always be risks in the struggle for rights, and the question now is what will Malaysian workers and trade unions do – remain in the role that the British Colonial Government wanted, which seems also the same as what the present UMNO-BN government wants, or will they wake up and fight for better worker and trade union rights – and a re-emergence of a strong labour movement in Malaysia?
Without highlighting wrongs, violations and struggles for better rights, issues and concerns will not be known to others, so there will also be no pressure on government/s and employers to protect and improve worker and trade union rights in Malaysia. Will even the election manifestos and policy of the political parties in Malaysia contain any commitment to the improving of rights and the strengthening of the labour movement? Will workers and unions choose to continue to remain in the ‘restricted space’ provided for them by the British colonial government and now the UMNO-BN government, or will they finally break out and regain some their old glory, strength, power and relevance?
There are about 14.6 million workers in a country of about 30 million plus, and as such they do have much power and say in not just the future of the labour movement, but also Malaysia. It is sad when just about 100,000 Felda setters and their families can make their rights and welfare a major national concern, and the so much more workers and union members cannot.
[i] The first of a two-part series on the trade union movement in Malaysia by Dr Leong Yee Fong
[ii] The Institutional Approach to Labour and Development edited by Klárá Fóti, Laurids Lauridsen, Gerry Rodgers, Published by Frank Cass & Co Ltd
[iii] Morgan, p.168
[iv] Harper cites E.A. Ross, minute, 10 February 1946, and LAB/92/47
[v] Tribune Staff Reporter (23 December 1946). "K.L. Forms New 'Action Council'". The Malayan Tribune.
[vi] Morgan, p.178
[vii] Morgan, p.178. He cites Straits Times, 5 March and 8 March 1947.
[viii] The amendments are described in Morgan, pp.185,6; and Stenson, f.n., p.8. Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circumstances_prior_to_the_Malayan_Emergency#cite_note-49