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Klang MP Charles Santiago has questioned the government on whether it is planning to use security laws such as the National Security Council Bill 2015 passed yesterday to suppress trade unions.
He said the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) allows greater freedom for Malaysian trade unions to operate, such as by lowering the requirments for organising trade unions and holding strikes.
Although he has reservations about these provisions, he said he is outraged that the national interest analysis report on the TPPA released yesterday perceives greater freedom for trade unions as a security risk.
Furthermore, the report adds, “The government is aware of the potentially disruptive threats of labour actions and is studying measures to mitigate them.”
“What the hell are they talking about?” asked Charles during a weekly press briefing in Petaling Jaya today.
“So that means when you go on strike, you would have the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma), the Prevention on Terrorism Act 2015 (Pota) , and the National Security Council Bill (NSC) used against them. Is that what they are saying?
“That is a good question to ask, because you are all considered (a threat to) public order and security,” he said.
He said he came across that line in the report at 3 this morning, and was drowsy after a long day at Parliament last night debating the NSC Bill.
However, he was jolted awake when he saw it.
“This cannot be national interest. How can getting higher wages for workers (through unions) so that you address concerns about inequality in the country, be seen as a problem of public order and instability?
“How can having more food to eat in a worker’s home is a problem of safety and security? How? Why treat workers as an enemy? It makes no sense,” he said.
He pointed out that even in Indonesia, the government was not toppling down and foreign investment still poured in despite it having strong trade unions.
Unions are are also common in Europe and the US and these countries haven’t been brought to their knees by labour strikes either, he said.
Charles also pointed out that in the 11th Malaysia Plan, income inequality was recognised as a problem to be tackled which was why the government had a minimum wage scheme already in place.
Increasingly, he said, even businesses are recognising the need to ensure that their workers receive an equitable pay because inequality can lead to social strife.
Workers can also help drive the economy if they are properly paid, he added, as they would have more spending power.
He added that in the first place, wages in Malaysia were so low because unions had been suppressed for over 20 years under laws introduced by former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
This would change under the US-Malaysia Labour Consistency Plan which has already been signed aside from the TPPA and would come into effect when the TPPA itself comes into force.
‘Real products, real technologies’
Charles added that Isis’ analysis also showed a lack of understanding on how labour laws and industrial relations work in Malaysia.
He said that while the Labour Consistency Plan curtails the powers of the director-general of trade unions, the minister’s power to order compulsory arbitration remained untouched.
This despite the plan lowering the required number of workers needed to hold a strike from the current two-thirds majority to a mere simple majority.
He explained that a minister can order a labour dispute to be argued in court and all labour actions including strikes must stop when this happens.
On another matter, Charles said the government should invest perhaps RM5 billion in Malaysia’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and their workers before the TPPA comes into force in 2018.
The money would be used to upgrade worker skills and to help SMEs that are in financial jeopardy.
“Malaysia has to make a policy of moving out of the bottom of the supply chain to a higher level. This has been talked about over so many years but nothing is happening.
“For that to happen, you’d need people in Malaysia who can build real products, real technologies. Our universities and our vocational schools need to be at the forefront in this,” he said.
He explained that most Malaysian SMEs are currently at the bottom of the ‘value chain’, meaning that they are assembling products instead of inventing them and not making much money in the process.
If Malaysia does not improve by the time TPPA comes into force, he warned that Malaysia would miss the chance to do so.
“We are fighting tooth-and-nail with Vietnam. So our competion is not whether we can develop the design or develop the product but our competition is to keep wages so low that we can compete with Vietnam.
“A trade agreement locks you into that relationship, and I think the TPP is going to do that […]
“We are fighting for the crumbs, between Malaysia and Vietnam, whereas Japan, Canada and the US are fighting for the cream. How to get the cream when we are fighting for the crumbs?” he said.
Vietnam, Japan, Canada, and the US are among the 12 countries that negotiated the TPPA apart from Malaysia.
Products falling short
Johor DAP deputy chief S Ramakrishnan warned that Malaysian SMEs lacked the ability to compete with their US counterparts on home ground, once TPPA removes trade barriers between the two countries.
He said Malaysian SMEs were much smaller in scale compared to American SMEs, and are also lacking in access to capital, technologies and productivity. The quality of their products also fall short of export requirements.
He said they are likely to suffer further unless they can become part of a multinational corporation’s supply chain.
Charles pointed out that the SME Association has warned that 30 percent of SMEs would go out of business under the TPPA. The sector reportedly produces 33 percent of Malaysia’s GDP, and 60 percent of employment.
The agricultural sector is particularly vulnerable, Ramakrishnan said, because the US agricultural sector is highly subsidised.
They are able to sell their produces in Malaysia below cost compared to Malaysian farmers, he said.
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