Malaysia is one of Asia's biggest employers of foreign labour. But recently, cases of deaths, abuse and forced labour have come to light. What is going on? Who is protecting these migrant workers?
The first meeting of delegates from the Unions, acting under the agis of the Labour Group, had decided that it was in the interest of all Trade Unionists that a central body be formed without unnecessary delay. The members of the Labour Group acted out of a response for the need of a National Trade Union organisation and in doing so sowed the first seeds of the formation of the MTUC as we know it today.
The position at January 1st 1949 was that there were 163 registered Trade Unions with a total membership of 68,814.
And in less than two months plans for the formation of a Council of Trade Unions came to fruition when a Conference of Malayan Trade Union Delegates was called for the 27th and 28th of February of the same year. While preparations for this conference were being made two more unions were granted registration.
And when the conference opened, 160 delegates from 83 of the 165 registered Trade Unions were represented. Great public leaders of the time and men of integrity gave their wholehearted support and blessings to the movement. Among some of the distinguished personalities who attended and addressed this first meeting were Dato Onn Bin Jaafar, Dato Tan Cheng Lock and Mr. R. Ramani.
The meeting passed unanimously a resolution reaffirming faith in the principles of voluntary and peaceful negotiations in all industrial and occupational disputes and recommended to the Government of the time that they adopt a more realistic and sympathetic attitude in dealing with the grievances of workers. The Conference also approved the appointment of a small working committee from among the member with the following terms of reference :
a) To examine the Trade Union position and ascertain what further steps could be taken to establish closer liaison between union and union.
b) To consider what type of machinery and organisation could be developed, which would allow regular consultation and discussion between the Trade Union Movement and the Labour representatives serving on various Government bodies and committees.
Those appointed to the Working Committee were : Mr. K.C. Chia, Chairman, Mr. V. M. N. Menon, Secretary, Mr. Pritam Singh , Mr. A.G. D. Alwis, En. Mohd Nasir Bin Budin, Mr. P. P. Narayanan, Mr. P. Rajagopal and Mr. B. Ugajar Singh.
The demands of the first conference were surprisingly moderate in nature. The British authorities themselves could hardly have expected it. All that was asked for by the Trade Unions at the time was for the opportunity to be given to them to bring peace, in particular, industrial peace to the country. Like all Unions there was also the demand that the Trade Union Movement be allowed to progress without obstacles being out in their way. And the British quite readily accepted the ideals that the first Conference had established. But despite this, there were among British officials, those who were convinced that a federation of trade unions could only be detrimental to the country. For an argument they expressed the view that such a federation would be Indian dominated and would cause resentment among the other races. They even went as far as to suggest that this kind of resentment could lead to social unrest.
There was also a third view and that” …. certain people wanted, again, for various reasons, political, personal and even because of their distaste for the British rule of law or even possibly with an active desire to cause trouble, to revive and expand a movement which, unless controlled by conservative outlook, could be the forerunner of a second disaster in Malaya”. The disasters being referred to were the communist insurgency and the racial riots of 1946.
But the Trade Union Movement was not to be cowed into submission by such negative thinking even if it came from certain quarters of the Colonial authorities.
The Working Committee campaigned vigorously for the promotion of the concept of a workers federation throughout the country. Unofficial representatives were appointed to carry this message and make Unions understand that the federation was for the good of all workers. There was much to be done to dispel all doubts among workers in general on the need for a federation. And there were doubts, by various Unions over the unofficial leadership of the movement toward federation and even the benefits that a federation would bring them.
There were doubts perhaps because the leadership of the Working Committee were quite far ahead of their times, in terms of Trade Union development from the rest of the field. What they felt was needed was not always agreed to by leaders of the other Unions. Bro. Menon, Narayanan and Rajagopal to name a few were also English educated and to some extent drew their inspiration from the West. Many Union leaders, especially those representing tradesmen were neither English educated nor willing to see ahead of the times. Many Union leaders sincerely felt that was nothing to gain by joining a larger national body ; after all, their first job was to protect the interest of their own members.
There were also some who looked upon the federation as a threat to their positions. They were leaders in their own right and brought in its wake a new found sense of freedom and prestige. Some felt that to join a larger body would inevitably mean loosing some of their power and prestige. There was also a sense of uncertainty in as far as what directions the national federation would take to achieve the aims of labour. Many were satisfied with the situation as it existed and the way things operated. Lastly there was also the question of finances. Joining the federation would mean having to contribute to its upkeep. There was a belief that such monies could be better utilised.
But the first steps for the formation of a national council of Trade Unions had already been taken because there was not only the right kind of leadership but also the will to survive despite all odds. It must be remembered too that there were also thousands of workers who saw the need for such a body and it was these thousands who lent their voice and support that made the formation of the first national organisation for Malayan workers inevitable. Enlightenment had come to the Malayan Trade Union Movement very early in its history, and this is proved by the fact that there was a spontaneous surge among Unionists towards falling behind the few leaders who had the vision and far-sightedness to push for the formation of a Council of Trade Unions in the country. When we consider the uncertain times that Malaya as a federation was going through in the late 40’s because of such strife as the Emergency and racial tension, this step taken by the Unions is an even more laudable one.
Reproduced from History of MTUC by SJH Zaidi
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