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?
By P Ramasamy
The Malaysian government’s attempt under the 11th Malaysia Plan to increase the income of the bottom 40 per cent of the population – from RM2,500 to RM5,000 a month – might come to naught if policies and labour laws that favour employers are not withdrawn.
Workers have always maintained that productivity has risen in Malaysia without a commensurate increase in wages. This claim is backed by figures. The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) has cited figures from the World Bank to indicate that the productivity of workers has increased by 6.7 per cent from 2002 to 2012.
However, employers, long cushioned by anti-labour laws and policies that favour them, say that productivity has not risen and workers therefore do not deserve wage increases.
It is not merely the interplay between forces of productivity and wages that determine the final result. In fact, harking back to the colonial days, wages for workers were often depressed by laws and outright suppression of workers’ rights by the government in collusion with employers. In Malaysia, the on-going debate on wages and productivity does not make sense if we do not factor in the role of the government.
Employers make all kinds of arguments against wage increases, but they deliberately omit to mention that there is a slew of laws inherited from the colonial days that favour them.
In fact, the cheap-labour policy of the government was used to increase the flow of foreign investment into the country. Workers organized in trade unions were unable to alter the wage structure not because they were not productive but simply because they were prevented from exercising their collective rights to do so.
When you don’t have a level-playing field, when you discriminate against the majority of the population, how do you expect workers to alter the wage structure in their favour?
Employers, long sheltered by the anti-labour policies of the government, are prone to squeezing the workers to the maximum by coming out with all kinds of arguments. The non-productivity argument is one of these.
The Malaysian government has always gone all out to protect employers at the expense of the economic and social well-being of workers. The entry in large numbers of cheap, docile and subservient workers into the country must be understood in the larger context of the systematic attempts by employers and the government to depress wages.
Against the employers’ might, workers have only one defence mechanism, that is, to organize and mobilize under trade unions. However, it is sad that after more than 58 years of political independence, only 9 per cent of our workers are organized in trade unions. Moreover, union busting both by employers and the government has weakened the bargaining power of trade unions.
Without touching on political and social factors, it would be difficult to make arguments either in support of wage increases or against them. The lives and struggles of the working class cannot be judged by merely considering economic issues. This will constitute a great disservice to workers who have brought development and wealth to Malaysia but do not benefit from this success.
Take away the obnoxious laws and policies that curb the freedom of the working class, and then we will see a major political, social and economic transformation of the working class. Countries that enjoy high standards of living and a good quality of life are those that protect and advance the rights of workers, not the other way round.
The Malaysian government should not be naïve. The wage structure cannot be altered by simply making promises that appear good on paper. Concrete actions in the form of the removal of obnoxious labour laws and policies are needed to return to workers the bargaining rights they have lost.
P Ramasamy is Deputy Chief Minister II Penang
Source: Free Malaysia Today
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