FOR the first time in my memory, both the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) are on the same page, criticising the manner in which the Industrial Relations Act 1967 (Act 177) and the Trade Unions Act 1959 were amended. And for the first time too, both sides are also opposing the substance of the said amendments.
All these years, there has been a clear divide between the employer (MEF) and employee (MTUC) sides. Ironic as the current situation may seem, I find it quite understandable, however. For the first time, MEF has had to deal with a Human Resources Minister who does not sing from the same song sheet as in the past; it must have been quite a culture shock. On the other hand, the labour movement must have felt that its expectations have not been met. These expectations, reasonable or otherwise, may have arisen from the fact that Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran had, for most of his professional career, taken the side of the underdog and indeed fought for workers’ rights within our judicial system. Therein is the source of the irony – the dichotomy and commonality of traditional rivals.
However, what both sides must realise is that Kulasegaran has to strike a fair balance between the often competing interests of employers and employees. He has to be even-handed even if his heart strings are tugged to one side.
That said, my brothers and sisters in the trade union movement may like to be reminded of an event in the early 1980s when a wholesale revamp of our labour laws was introduced in Parliament.
After days of debate both within and in the national media, MTUC decided to march to Parliament to present its memorandum to the government. Led by its then president Dr. P. P. Narayanan who was also president of the International Congress For Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the largest workers’ group in the world, the march was met by the FRU (Federal Reserve Unit) outside the locked gates of Parliament House. After much haggling, a group of 10 to 15 trade unionists was allowed in. All but one of the MPs from the ruling coalition, including Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, ignored MTUC’s attempt to hand over the memorandum. It was only that gentleman of a politician, Tun Hussein Onn, who politely accepted it from Narayanan before walking into the House. It must be noted that the then labour minister was nowhere to be seen.
It would put matters into perspective for current MTUC leaders to juxtapose that scenario with their last march to Parliament in protest of the minimum wage. Recall that when you marched to Parliament, Kulasegaran came out to meet with you, received your memorandum and indeed managed to secure a small increase in the minimum wage.
Against that backdrop, it is unreasonable to describe Kulasegaran as “arrogant”, “a traitor” or with other disparaging terminology.
It is common knowledge that all sides now have their “spin doctors” marauding the social media space, mostly with their “shoot first, talk later” modus operandi. It is therefore respectfully suggested that the government, MEF and MTUC, who are indeed partners and not rivals in this arena, take an honest re-look at the amendments which have yet to cross the threshold of the Dewan Negara and make or unmake further reasonable provisions. There is no need for harsh exchanges through the media.
Finally, it should be appreciated that since both the employer and employee sides are unhappy at not achieving all that each side wanted, Kulasegaran must be doing something considered, something balanced and something right.
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