I have followed with rapt attention the mobilisation of the Young Lawyers’ Movement (YLM) in their quest towards attaining minimum wage for pupils in law firms. Their struggle has now grown to protecting young people against general labour abuses they are facing particularly with the newly minted MCO 2.0. I read their statement with rapt attention, as they pointed out such abuses as unilateral salary cuts and forced resignations in certain law firms being faced by young lawyers. The YLM correctly points out that Associates and Pupils pledged allegiance, fidelity and service to the firms they served hoping to build a long and successful career ahead of them. Abandoning them in their time of need during a global pandemic should not be done.
However, what has been quite disturbing is the reaction towards this group of young lawyers organising themselves to fight for their rights. From the very beginning, many partners of leading law firms have sniggered at the YLM. In fact, the founding of this group is rooted in an absolutely appalling series of social media posts by leading partners in large firms contemplating doing away with allowances for pupils doing their pupillage at a firm. The logic was that these pupils would still be in a learning phase and extracting knowledge from the firm itself. They further went on to say that a loan scheme should be set up so that pupils who are paid whilst with a firm can pay it back with interest after their pupillage.
In Marxism, we have a term called the extraction of surplus capital. Basically, the expender of labour (the worker) produces products or services that result in a certain value (or capital) for which they are paid a certain wage. The remainder after the wage is subtracted from the capital is surplus capital which is absorbed by the owner of the means of production (the employer). Marxists find this relationship exploitative, as the full capital generated by the worker is not enjoyed by them. Rather it is extracted away from them for a higher, employer class.
The logic used by the partners above go much beyond this exploitation to a point where they are demanding payment for the privilege of expending labour. This can be akin to a system of indentured labour, where one is pushed into debt that must be worked off through their labour. I find this arrangement so disturbing that it was actually even considered to be put into writing is demonstrative of how weak the relationship of young lawyers is with their firm’s partners.
When we come across such polar positions of power between two groups, there is a need to balance it such that the exploitation of one by another is avoided. The method by which to do this is unionising the individuals within the weaker group (workers). Through the machination of a union, workers may unite as one and utilise their collective power to demand for better work conditions. The logic here is that the employer initially holds all the cards, with ownership of the whole means of production, such that workers can only do work and get payment if they work with the employer.
However, the other side of the coin is that the employer can only make money if there are workers to produce that capital. Hence, weaponizing the only relevant thing workers have against their employers, their labour, makes unionising effective as a method to achieve their goals, with the threat of removing their labour through strike-actions.
With this said, many have come forward to defend the existing structure, complaining that increasing the wages for pupils and young lawyers will result in unsustainably high labour costs for existing law firms. I have to ask, then, what is the actual business model these firms operate on currently? Are they reliant on the exploitation of labour of pupils and young lawyers such that a guaranteed minimum wage to each will cause them to go out of business? Forgive me if I am blunt but if one cannot afford to treat their workers in such a manner as to avoid exploiting them, they probably should not be in business in the first place.
Others still have come forward to belittle the very form of organisation the YLM has adopted. In fact, the Chairperson of the Bar Council National Young Lawyers and Pupils Committee, Mr. Yusfarizal bin Yussoff, has issued a statement in which he notes the YLM “has been issuing statements and conducting roadshows in certain states in relation to the idea of imposing a minimum remuneration for young lawyers, and voicing concerns about other issues as regards young lawyers. While we acknowledge their good intentions, we believe that such effort would be more meaningful if it is done in a proper and non-controversial manner.”
It is borderline hilarious that the Chairperson of the Bar Council National Young Lawyers and Pupils Committee would say this. The very fact the YLM have organised within themselves, written a comprehensive memorandum, brought it on a roadshow to various Bar Councils in different states and continued to bring forth issues face by young lawyers in Malaysia is remarkable and to be appreciated. To reduce these bold steps as not proper or controversial is admitting democratic, bottom-up organising of affected workers is something that irks those in power. Why should it? What is there to fear when workers unite around their causes, much of which have been ignored and ever worsened especially during these times?
Of course, if you ask a Marxist these questions, the answer is obvious. Those who are disparaging the YLM’s method of organising are simply upholding a structure designed to exploit young workers. They want young pupils and lawyers to be disempowered, they want the imbalance of power between employers and employees to exist, as this will ensure further maximisation of profit. More than this, they also want young workers to be beholden to their employers, to be subservient to the whims of capital owners and be completely at the mercy of their bosses. Perhaps the Chairperson of the Bar Council National Young Lawyers and Pupils Committee is not such a person, perhaps they are simply having an incorrect opinion, but these are the people they inadvertently serve.
Lastly, it has come to my attention that there is a separate group called the Old Lawyers’ Movement who have written a sort-of parody statement somewhat against the YLM. OLM’s statement, titled “Law firms should not be held at ransom amid MCO 2.0”, is quite insightful. Referring to the report of a Bar Council Survey titled “The Effect of the Movement Control Order on Law Firm Owners of the Malaysian Bar”, it seems “the majority of respondents however wished to continue with operations without major changes”. This is a relief!
However, the OLM seems to be bitter against the organising capability of YLM. Lamenting the victimisation of old lawyers in their attempt to sustain the firm during MCO and asking why young lawyers are organising when the Covid-19 virus does not discriminate by age, it is obvious the OLM are simply basing their arguments off of a weak strawman. The YLM have not said they are against old lawyers, or even senior partners, rather they are against exploitative labour practices!
What was particularly disturbing in their statement, however, was the following line: “Instead of lining up at Industrial Court on forced salary cuts, unpaid wages or forced resignations. Legal fraternity be it young or old should mediate and find a win-win solutions. [sic]” The OLM are asking lawyers who have been forced to take a salary cut, forced to wait on unpaid wages and forced to resign to not seek legal redress. It is a shameful act indeed for supposedly senior lawyers to ask anyone to not defend themselves from exploitation!
Let me be clear, when people are forced unilaterally by their employer without “mediating” beforehand to “find a win-win solutions [sic]”, that is a clear indication of the huge gap in power between senior lawyers and young lawyers. The YLM made it clear in their statement that they are against unilateral salary cuts and forced resignations. Both of these are not born of a discussion between the employer and employee, rather they are decisions taken by the employer alone.
This should not be possible. The way it can be eradicated is through organising young lawyers who may be victimised through a functioning union that can allow them to get into collective agreements with their employers with a balanced power structure. The cries and moans of those higher in the power structure and old lawyers, at least those in the OLM, are simply the geriatric throes of those who have been in power for so long, exploitation of the underclass has become the norm. It is time for all workers, including lawyers, to unite against exploitation. In solidarity!
Arveent Kathirtchelvan is a Committee Member of the Socialist Youth of Parti Sosialis Malaysia and the Chief Coordinator of Liberasi