In Malaysia, the trade union movement seems to be weakening due to decreasing number of unions and union membership. Of the estimated 14.6 million workers, nearly 925,000 workers are union members as of 2017.1 In the private sector, union membership declined from 376,362 in 2014 to 354,313 in 2017.2
Issues with the Labor Unions
When violations of workers’ and trade union rights occur, Malaysian labor unions sadly do not choose to struggle through pickets, strikes or campaigns against employers and instead use the lengthy administrative and judicial processes by lodging complaints. As an example, the trial at the Industrial Court of the case of Wan Noorulazhar (President of the Electronic Industry Employees Union Western Region, Peninsular Malaysia) who was wrongfully terminated on 26 August 2011 started only in April 2017. It is difficult to tell when the trial stage would end, and appeals to the High Court and the Court of Appeal can happen. Getting effective remedies (those that have impact on employers and/or instrumental in bringing changes in laws) from the courts is another issue.
Employers favor this method of “industrial dispute” resolution mechanism that does not really impact their business and profits; the workers and unions remain as victims.
Trade unions have been controlled by laws, first imposed by the British colonial government and continued after Independence by UMNO-dominated coalition government – today known as the Barisan Nasional.
The trade union movement has accepted the “limitations” imposed on them by the authorities, and chose to survive within the “limited space” provided by a strong adherence to the law, even if that law is unjust. The labor movement has also made very little effort to reach out to the Malaysian public, Members of Parliament, State Assemblypersons and Senators for help in the fight for justice.
Since 1998, Malaysians generally have become braver and started to come out in much larger number in peaceful assemblies to protest wrongdoings and demand changes. But alas, this has not moved the trade union movement or workers to do the same – despite the continued erosion of workers’ and trade union rights.
What happened in the 2015 Malaysian Airlines case, which involved the dismissal of about 6,000 workers, is an indication of the state of the labor movement in the country. With the 10,000 (maybe even closer to 20,000) airline workers being mostly unionized, not a single mass protest or picket involving thousands of union members happened.
Malaysia continues with its “divide and rule” policy on trade unions – permitting unions based on occupation, sector and industry, and disallowing the formation of unions or federation of unions across different sectors, industry and occupation. Workers in the private and public sectors are still prevented from becoming members of common unions. The Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) and the Congress of Unions of Employees in the Public and Civil Services Malaysia (CUEPACS) continue to be registered as “societies.”
Decades ago, Malaysia justified the control of the trade union movement as a necessity in attracting foreign investors to set up factories in the country and hence create more jobs and increase income. In other words, low wages and passive workforce made Malaysia attractive to foreign investment; and the absence of strike for almost four decades was seen as positive.
Malaysian trade union and labor laws fall far short of the minimum international human rights and workers’ rights standards. Malaysia has to make significant amendments to its labor laws in order to comply with Chapter 19 on labor of the draft Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). The aborted draft “Malaysia–United States Labour Consistency Plan,” a “bilateral instrument in accordance with Chapter 19 of the TPP Agreement” has a long list of “legal reforms, and other changes that may be required to ensure consistency across its Acts, regulations and other measures.”3 After the United States decided to leave the TPPA in early 2017, the remaining eleven member-states decided to adopt a new free trade agreement in November 2017. Malaysia hopefully would amend its labor laws subsequently.
The Ministry of Human Resources Statistics on Employment and Labour (Statistik Pekerjaandan Perburuhan) has the power to inspect and enforce workers’ and trade union rights, occupational safety and health rights. But there has been no available information on the action taken on this inspection and enforcement power. The inspections must be done randomly and/or based on receipt of information from any sources. Many employers tend to terminate workers who lodge formal complaints, and thus avoid being penalized for violation of labor law. Under this situation, waiting for the workers to file complaints before the government takes action becomes unreasonable. This situation sadly suggests that Malaysia may not even be interested in protecting the existing workers’ and trade union rights.
Union busting continues by having union leaders easily terminated for issuing public statements, while union members are also terminated for sending memorandum to election candidates to get their commitment to struggle for better protection of workers’ rights. Workers participating in legal pickets are arrested for “making noise.” Union registration, and “recognition” processes are delayed, not expedited, not just by government bodies, but also by allowing long drawn-out litigation initiated by employers in court challenging even the Minister’s decisions.
Since the struggle for rights always has risks, will Malaysian workers and trade unions maintain the current situation or will they wake up and fight for better realization of the workers’ and trade union rights – and a re-emergence of a strong labor movement in Malaysia?
Without highlighting wrongs, violations and struggles for better protection of rights, the public will not know the labor issues and concerns involved and the government and employers will not be pressured to protect workers’ and trade union rights in Malaysia. Will the Malaysian political parties adopt a policy expressing commitment to improving the rights of workers and the strengthening of the labor movement?
There are about 14.6 million workers in a country of 30 million plus population, and as such they have much power and say in not just the future of the labor movement, but also Malaysia. If a 100,000-strong FELDA settlers and their families could make their rights and welfare a major national concern, why could not the much more numerous workers and union members make their voice heard?
Charles Hector is human rights defender and lawyer.
For further information, please contact: Charles Hector at easytocall(a)gmail.com.
1. Data from Ministry of Human Resources, Employment and Labour Statistics.
2. Data from Ministry of Human Resources, Employment and Labour Statistics.
3. See the list of labor issues that needed legal reform under the aborted “Malaysia–United States Labour Consistency Plan” (November 2015), “Malaysia–United States Labour Consistency Plan," https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/TPP-Final-Text-Labour-US-MY-Labor-Consistency-Plan.pdf.