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 Callistus Antony D’Angelus
The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) is seen by some quarters to be a boon for the economy while others view it with some degree of scepticism and even trepidation. The first thing that stands out is that the negotiations were shrouded in secrecy, which brings with it the question as to what is being hidden.
The concern among sceptics stems from the way bilateral and multilateral trade agreements have taken root and its impact on the common people, and in particular the wage-earning population. There is no denying that global trade has grown as a result of such trade agreements.
The TPPA is expected to increase exports among the 12 signatory countries by USD$305 billion per year by 2025. While the figures may be disputed, it does give us an idea of the growth in trade that such agreements bring about.
The issue with such free-trade agreements is that it has brought with it some structural economic, social, political and cultural problems which are not being dealt with.
Where the working population is concerned, and by this I mean the majority of workers who have to grind hard to eke out a decent living, the problems which they face at present are:
1. A threat to their security of employment, where precarious employment practices are being encouraged through such trade agreements. Casual and temporary work is promoted without restraint, at the expense of the right of workers to have a reasonable amount of security;
2. The growth of income and wealth inequality, with there being no signs of this abating. Most of the gains and benefits of trade growth are enjoyed by the elite few, at the expense of the majority growing poorer;
3. Offshoring and outsourcing of work has become far more prevalent, with the cost of displacement of those impacted being ignored;
4. A growing neoliberal crusade against trade unionism;
5. Real income levels being reduced, and
6. An adverse impact on the family and social life, as a consequence of the increasing economic strain.
Is the sovereignty of nations being challenged?
A big concern with the TPPA is that unlike most other multilateral trade agreements, which concentrate on the removal of tariffs on goods and services and the setting of trade quotas, it also seeks to remove non-tariff barriers and seeks to harmonise regulations and statutes.
What would be the impact of this on workers and legislations which cover workers’ protection and trade union rights? With the focus being on trade and the growth of business, this is a cause for concern.
Are we going to see a dilution of the rights of workers? Would there be further challenges to the growth and independent functioning of trade unions?
Does the TPPA contemplate moving towards the concept of employment-at-will, where workers could be fired with ease?
It is intriguing as to how a trade agreement could go so far as to seek to harmonise laws within countries.
Any society in any nation arrives at its social and economic systems through a series of bargains it makes with itself – where there is trade-offs and compromises on some things in order to enjoy some other benefits.
To try and meddle with that and streamline it across countries, without engaging all of society’s stakeholders, is an act of irresponsible governance.
Workers have a real reason to be worried; especially given the fact that globalisation as it is today has benefited a few and caused economic and social hardship to many. The rules are written in favour of an elite class.
Trickle-down economics, as propagated by the neo-liberals have failed the human race. Individuals such as Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Pikkety and even Pope Francis have been pointing out the flaws in the system and the unsustainable nature of the current order. Yet, such sage voices are being ignored.
There is no reason why labour organisations, such as the AFL-CIO and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), should not have played a major role in the negotiation process. Their exclusion and that of other civil society organisations is telling.
What do we need to do?
Clearly, a more inclusive approach is required, taking into account the need to raise the standard and quality of life of everyone and not just the elite class. To this end, there should be engagement with civil society organisations and national labour centres.
Agreements such as the TPPA should also have high on its agenda minimum labour standards. If trade is to grow according to estimations, there should be no reason as to why better minimum labour standards cannot be worked out for all the signatory nations.
Matters such as minimum wage, hours of work, maternity benefits and rights, trade union protection, child labour, collective bargaining rights, etc., should be covered by the agreement. If there can be a will to agree on common trade standards, there can also be a way to work out some minimum labour standards.
As the agreement is being passed through the legislative and executive machineries of the respective signatory nations, it is not too late to ensure that the rights of workers are protected and upgraded. – October 17, 2015.
Source: The Malaysian Insider
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