Why Do We Need Workers’ Unions?

By Arveent Kathirtchelvan

The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating, indeed. Both on the economic and humanitarian fronts, we have seen huge losses, continued paranoia and uncertainty. However, certain unexpected side-effects of the pandemic leave us with stark realisations of how our society functions, the disappointments therein and the solutions to which are now imperative.

The response to the pandemic highlights the deep inequality that exists between employers and employees. Many workers have been either retrenched or put on lengthy unpaid leaves to save costs on the end of the employers. This undoubtedly will be exacerbated by the recent partial lockdown initiated by the Malaysian government. Whilst they have introduced a stimulus package to deal with the effects of this pandemic, it does not cover adequately the welfare of these workers and their families.

Rather, like many other countries around the world, the package is mainly to sustain the stock market, stimulate spending and support companies. Of course, these companies may not retrench their workers at as high a rate due to the stimulus package, but we must ask, how is it going to assist the 13,000 workers of MAS who might go on “voluntary” unpaid leaves or many others who will have to stop work for the next two weeks in the government lockdown? Do they get paid, and if not, how are they to survive?

The Reality of Malaysian Workers

Should we be surprised, though, when economic measures have always tended to favour the rich, wealthy and employer classes at the expense of workers? We can see this in 2018 when the then Pakatan Harapan government raising the minimum wage for Malaysian workers by only RM 50 a month, subsequently revised to an RM 100 increase after protest actions. However, let us not forget the long struggle for the minimum wage to be even established in 2012.

Years of hard work, toil and dedication was needed, politically lead by the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) , from 1996 with the national campaign demanding for the minimum wage for plantation workers that culminated in the establishment of RM 325 as a minimum wage on top of which their wages will be calculated. JERIT, a PSM front was then involved in a minimum wage campaign for all Malaysian workers from 2002 until its establishment.

It’s funny that it took over a decade to establish a basic minimum wage that covers all Malaysian workers when a similar effort is not needed to lower taxes on the rich. Corporate tax, for example, dropped from 30% to 25% in a similar period (1997 – 2012). Taxes on wealth, capital gains (except on real estate) and inheritance do not exist, even though the Malaysian median salary of RM 2308 is much lower than the living wage of RM 2700 in KL and even the average wage of just over RM 3000 is not much better. Of course, if we take the starting salary of workers in Malaysia, the condition becomes even more dismal with salaries lower than RM 2000 considered normal.

Putting this aside, work conditions are also deteriorating in Malaysia. This is evident in the increasing reliance on outsourcing of business functions, where companies prefer to hire third-party vendors who supply resources on a contract basis with lower remuneration and benefits, supposedly for a short term when in actuality the contracts are intended to be renewed regularly from the outset. So, a permanent position is filled adequately with supposedly temporary resources simply to cut costs. What’s even more heart-breaking is that even government facilities are beset with this malady, with hospitals and schools staffed by ‘temporary’ cleaning staff who stay on the same salary for 20 years and more on the technicality that theirs is a contract position.

Even for permanent staff, the workload has become immense. It is no secret now that many employees are expected to work more hours than they are contracted for. It is becoming very common for workers to be expected to finish by Monday morning what they are assigned to Friday evening. Employers are constantly pushing employees to devote their recreational and rest time to finishing up work in an effort to squeeze out the last bit of productivity from workers. This, then, gets translated into increased private profits and is most evident in vendor companies serving large corporations.

The Crux of Our Activism

Whatever happened to the 8-8-8 rule, where three sets of 8 hours in a day are reserved for work, recreation and rest, respectively? Whatever happened to the weekend being designated for non-work activities, as fought for by workers unions many years ago? In pondering these questions do we find the crux of the matter. Workers’ unions have been disempowered in Malaysia to such an extent that the influence of capital-owning employers is all-encompassing.

What do workers have against capital-owners? It is capital-owners who have the money, the factories, the plantations and other places of work. Workers only have their labour to give as exchange for remuneration. Unfortunately, a disunited labour force is handled easily, with small chunks of labour pitted against one another to drive down the cost of labour itself. With a disunited voice for workers, each worker is judged against another and the one selling their labour for the cheapest cost is hired.

Here is the most important work of our time as activists. Only about 6% of the total Malaysian labour force is represented in unions. This is why it is so easy to step over them. When the government wants to increase the minimum wage, the pushback from employers are so strong due to the might of the capital that they hold, whereas disunited workers, as much as they complain, are ignored. Imagine if 25% of the approximately 15 million workers of Malaysia were to stage a protest action. That is 3.25 million workers protesting either in a march or a strike action. The country will come to a standstill, employers will be forced to act and, finally, workers representatives would be called to negotiate terms.

Unlikely, you say? In the aforementioned 2018 protests against the paltry increase in the minimum wage, only about 500 protesters were present. It still managed to result in a greater minimum wage being announced. The power of the workers is with each other, in the factories, plantations and elsewhere, standing in solidarity to demand for their rights. We would not be here worrying about whether the government will come up with schemes to benefit the gig-economy workers, the workers put on unpaid leaves or even retrenched workers if all of them had their own unions to champion their cause. A strong representation of the workers voice, outside of depending on political masters is the first, most crucial step in democratising our politics.

It is even more tragic to imagine that the labour force that needs to unite is kept separate whereas employers stay united in the powerful Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF). Why do powerful capital owners deserve to unite and consolidate their already powerful grip onto our workers? Do we not see how such a powerful position may lead to oppression of the workers within the confines of laws specifically designed to side with the employers? The supposed champions of democracy in Malaysia always talk about checks and balances on our government. Where is the check and balance on our capitalists?

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