Fighting hard for survival

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 01 May 2005

By Wani Muthiah

Trade unions seem to have lost their way – outflanked by multinational employers, slowed down by unemployment and pushed aside by governments. Is there any other route they can take? – New Internationalist, Issue 117, November 1982. 

THIS year, the MTUC once again observes Workers Day swaddled in doom and gloom due to its mounting troubles.  

The umbrella body’s melancholic Workers Day theme this year, Globalisation Erodes Workers Rights, is reflective of its precarious position as well as its battle to stay relevant in the wake of the new economy.  

Continuous attempts by the MTUC to strengthen itself are of no avail given that less than 10% of the nation’s 9.2 million workers are unionised. The emergence of new employment sectors, which have no tradition for unionisation, as well as the comprehensive employment contract offered by companies are also factors behind the decline in membership.  

“Basically, the traditional role of the trade union is to bargain with employers for remuneration for its members but these benefits are now automatically included by companies in their employment contracts,” explains Universiti Malaya lecturer Thirunaukarasu Subramaniam.  

“So, there’s nothing left for the unions to ‘fight for’ with employers.”  

Thirunaukarasu, who teaches labour issues at the university’s South East Asian Studies Department, says the increase in the number of “sophisticated” workers and decline in the number of blue collar jobs are also factors behind the weakening of the trade union movement here.  

MTUC secretary-general G. Rajasekaran attests that the umbrella body’s problems are far more complicated, with its biggest bane currently being the overly rigid Trades Union Act 1959 and the Industrial Relations Act 1987. 

Besides preventing the MTUC from strengthening itself in numbers, both legislations compartmentalised workers and stopped them from organising into bigger groups, explains Rajasekaran.  

For instance, employees working in a company which makes chairs are not eligible to join the Metal Industries Employees Union because besides metal, foam and rubber are also used to manufacture chairs.  

“There’re just too many restrictions for people to become union members and it also takes years before a union is granted recognition by the authorities,’’ says Rajasekaran. 

Because of such restrictive legislation, a large number of workers make do with in-house unions, which do not come under the purview of the MTUC. But even these are riddled with problems, says Rajasekaran. 

“If a company changes its name or even if it removes one word from its original name, the in-house union automatically ceases to exist. Members will then have to go through the entire registration process again, including the several years of waiting for recognition,’’ he says. 

However, such problems are not only unique to the MTUC as the declination of the trade union movement is a global phenomenon due to the shift of employment from the industrial sector to the services sector. Legislative attacks on union rights are currently rampant in industrialised countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.  

The UK’s Employment Act 1982, for instance, prevents international trade union solidarity by outlawing industrial action by British trade unionists in support of their colleagues in other industries and countries.  

UK’s Trade Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Brendan Barber says union membership in the UK fell from its peak of 12 million to its current 6.4 million over the last 20 years primarily due to the industrial restructuring of the country’s economy.  

“What has happened is that areas of the workforce in which union members worked have reduced dramatically, particularly the manufacturing sector.  

“At the same time, new areas of the economy have developed, for example in the services, leisure and retail sectors, from which unions do not have members,’’ says Barber when contacted.  

Like the MTUC, one of the biggest challenges faced by the TUC is the erosion of workers rights due to new emerging employment trends.  

“In the UK, many workplaces are finding their rights undermined by the so-called ‘flexible labour market’ which allows employers to replace staff with workers with no permanent contract and far fewer benefits, such as pension,’’ says Barber. 

Coming back to the Malaysian scenario, the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) says it hopes that the MTUC will make an effort to keep up with the changing times 

“Basically, trade unionism is not something static and the MTUC has to look at things happening around it and adopt the necessary changes to move ahead,’’ says MEF executive director Shamsuddin Bardan. 

According to Shamsuddin, employers are no longer able to compete on low cost wages as the current trend’s emphasis is on increased productivity. 

“Both employees and the MTUC, together with employers, must look at how we can be more competitive as a nation but there is a lot of resistance against change from the unions which still want to hold on to the old practices,’’ says Shamsuddin. 

He adds that the current work culture requires people who are multi-skilled and capable of carrying out multiple tasks at their respective workplaces. 

“When the employers talk about pushing for multi-tasking and multi-skilling, the trade union movement says that it’s exploitation of the highest order. Just look at Singapore, where multi-tasking and multi-skilling are both in practice, wages and productivity are three and four times higher respectively, than in Malaysia,’’ says Shamsuddin. 

The MTUC’s biggest problem, reckons Shamsuddin, is its unwillingness to change in accordance with the new work culture and trends. 

Meanwhile, ILO’s specialist on international labour standards and labour law Tim De Meyer states that it is not right to expect the trade union movement to compromise on issues such as job security as it is its responsibility to protect the interest of workers. 

He says the ILO is in favour of high productivity as it will ensure higher wages, but it wants employers and governments to ensure that it has the fundamentals to push for increased efficiency and yield. 

Unfortunately, says De Meyer, Malaysia, like many other countries in the region, does not have the necessary system to allow workers to equip themselves with multiple skills. 

“If you want a worker to move from a less productive job to a more productive one, there has to be in place a professional training system to prepare him. There must also be some sort of employment insurance to ensure that the worker receives guaranteed income support while he prepares himself for the transition,’’ adds De Meyer. 

Provisions should also be made by way of legislation to allow the MTUC to reinvent itself as well as pull in more members, says De Meyer. 

He reckons the trade union movement does not have to become a redundant fixture as it could evolve into a platform that offers services such as Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) protection, among others. 

“There are a lot of worker-related services that can be transferred from the government and statutory bodies to the trade union movement.  

“In some countries, individuals, especially professionals, can also engage trade unions to negotiate on their behalf with potential employers,’’ he says.  

Judging from the plight of the MTUC, it will take serious political will to set the ball rolling, to ensure its survival. 

Unless something is done immediately, it is likely that Malaysia’s move towards industrialisation would be the final cast of the die that would seal the sad fate of the nation’s trade union movement.  

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