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 EMMANUEL JOSEPH
Mention the words “trade union” and “worker movement” and you conjure up images of angry men in jeans and khaki shirts holding up anti-employer signs in one hand and punching the air with his fist with the other.
In the Malaysian context, unionists would bring to mind mid-aged guys in tight fitting shirts and loose pants and frizzy hairstyles walking down a road with linked arms shouting slogans.
But we have had neither in quite a while. The last two ‘big’ union related demonstrations that come to mind in recent history would both be bank-related.
Where the Hong Leong workers union demonstrated outside their office headquarters in Kuala Lumpur and the Maybank employee union wore “Kami Ditindas” badges while working.
Both were due to Collective Agreement (CA) disputes between the union and management.
Both are, by most accounts of those who would recall the angrier demonstrations of the yesteryears, relatively tame affairs.
And for good reason, too. Many workers today do not realize that most of the benefits they get today as workers and what most take for granted, are actually the hard-won victories of the earlier days of the worker unions.
Things like overtime pay, double or triple pay during the weekends, medical benefits and insurance coverage.
As a result of these efforts, the low to lower-middle level Malaysian worker is relatively well protected from their employers.
Most large companies have collective agreements in place and an organised complaints mechanism where workers can air their grouses to their respective unions.
Executives and non-executives
But what about the executive level employees?
The increase in access to higher education has seen a steady increase in degree-holders entering the job market.
The general rule of thumb with employers, would be classifying the employee as ‘executive’ grade if he or she holds a degree.
Therefore, generally speaking again, executive grade employees do not enjoy the same level of protection and collective bargaining power as their unionised non-executive colleagues.
The idea behind this could have been, educated degree holders would be able to hold their own against their bosses, and less-educated clerical level employees needed the protection of unions.
Another reason would be, executive grade employees are regarded as management level staff, or at least that’s what they are always told.
Over the years, however, these gaps have very much closed. The income disparity between the executive and non-executive class have closed in to a level where, it’s not surprising to see non-executive clerical entry level positions offering the same, if not a better package, than a junior executive level position.
Non-executives of this day and age too, are not as “weak” as their predecessors.
Many are highly educated and skilled and aware of their entitlements and rights. In many cases, even more than their managers.
This disparity of rights and privileges has even resulted in reluctance of unionised non-executive employees in accepting promotions to the executive level, for fear of losing these advantages.
Also, the increasing number of graduates would inevitably lead to less and less people “qualified” to be in unions.
As such, who speaks for the professional executive?
Professional bodies and associations
What non-executive employees are allowed to have, however, are “associations” – some sort of in-house union cum representative body to management. In many organisations these are more social clubs than fulfilling any union-like function.
Then there are professional bodies like the Malaysian Bar, which largely cover ethics and professional conduct.
Newer professions such as programmers or fitness consultants or professions previously widely regarded as semi-professional but have since grown into common full-blown degrees such as safety coordination or counselling appear to be the worst-represented bunch – they are perceived as too professional to come under a trade union, yet too unprofessional to have a professional body!
Trade based unions in a skilled based world
Many of the trade unions in Malaysia today are trade based. For example, the NUTP covers the teaching profession; the NUPW covers the plantation workers.
But there are many occupations in today’s modern workforce that does not quite neatly fit into any of the trade based unions. System analysts for instance, or project managers.
Their salaries and wages are largely controlled by market forces, and in a highly competitive globalised world, this means mobility following the industry or country of the day.
An occupation of such fluid nature would be difficult to place under any one union, but their interests should be represented somehow. Without such safeguards, the constant movement of employees in and out of the labour marketplace in a particular country could stem efforts to attract investment into it – the skill set in that area would no longer be supplied by a native workforce.
Union trade off?
The popular capitalist school of thought would of course be to do away with unions altogether. Having unions are bad for business. People would not invest here. There is less incentive to be productive or creative. It breeds familiarity and uniformity.
Supporters of unions would of course point to Europe where unions are credited with promoting more equitable distribution of wealth and safeguarding worker rights.opinion
Almost all EU members have a minimum wage and strictly regulated working hours and healthcare benefits
However, a shrinking pool of ‘workers’ as defined by the unions and employers would see the relevance of unions keep reducing as the bulk of employees in Malaysia moves from manual and semi-skilled labour to high skilled and knowledge-based workers.
While employee unions such as Cuepacs and MTUC has done plenty for our workers in the past, they should consider bolstering their numbers with more “professionals” to be more inclusive or eventually losing more of their political clout.
Or perhaps the time has come for a new way of representation of workers in Malaysia. Whatever it is, let the sacrifices of the unionists before this, not be in vain.
Arise, ye workers from your slumber,
Arise, ye prisoners of want.
For reason in revolt now thunders,
and at last ends the age of cant!
Happy Workers Day! – April 28, 2015.
Source: The Malaysian Insider
Address: Wisma MTUC,10-5, Jalan USJ 9/5T, 47620 Subang Jaya,Selangor | Tel: 03-80242953 | Fax: 03-80243225 | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org