The government must stop the torture of its contract workers

The government is among the worst employers as far as its lower-rung contract workers are concerned. The misery of over 200,000 contract cleaners and security guards at the premises of the two largest employers, the Health Ministry and the Education Ministry, is testimony to this.

The 4-day Motorbike Convoy by the NUWHSAS (National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services), currently making its way to Putrajaya from Penang is an attempt to draw the attention of the Health Minister, YB Khairy Jamaluddin, to the plight of contract cleaners at government hospitals in the country. The chief demand put forward by the union is one common to all contract workers in government departments: the government should absorb all contract workers into the government service.

This is a tall order given the universal “lean civil service” and “small government” neoliberal rules. But adherence to this through the contract system of the government has meant the breeding of poverty among a large segment of people. By this system, a worker is hired on two to three year contracts that are renewable over and over by different contractors until the worker retires. Length of service is never taken into account for determining wages or benefits, and a worker of, say 20 years, will always remain on the minimum wage, which in turn will affect the worker’s EPF savings as well as SOCSO contribution.

Ministers and the political elite always talk about helping people escape poverty but they need to know that the government is doing just the opposite with its contract system. Which is why the hospital workers union, NUWHSAS, is asking for the abolition of the contract system. Besides, is it even legal to use the contract system for jobs that are permanent in nature, such as cleaning, gardening and providing security in hospitals, schools and other departments?

Not only are government contract workers oppressed by an unfair contract system but also by the contractors chosen by the government. One complaint of the hospital contract workers is about union busting by their employers, Edgenta UEMS which is linked to Khazanah, a reputable GLIC whose research institute regularly highlights its findings on poverty and poverty indicators. Union activities such as meetings of worksite committees outside of work hours have been sabotaged by the management at hospitals. Active union leaders have been dropped when contracts are up for renewal. The very existence of the union has been threatened pending the outcome of a court case after the contractors used a dirty old trick to transfer the contract to a different company thus making the union powerless to represent its members. Why deny union protection to these workers? What is the stand of the government?

Unions may be considered unnecessary if the government takes an interest in the welfare and rights of the workers. But the government has a way of remaining silent even when its handpicked contractors openly oppress the workers in government premises. Even as this is written, there are at least 14 schools in Perak and Selangor, (and doubtless many more in the country) where the contract workers have not been paid their wages for up to three months. And to be sure these workers have not filed complaints at the labour office for fear of losing their jobs. How will these workers feed their families and pay rent? The district education offices (PPD) and the state education offices (JPN) have been made aware, and complaints have also been made by the Jaringan Pekerja Kontrak Kerajaan or JPKK (Network of Government Contract Workers) to the Education Ministry. Unfortunately, the government who is responsible for the contract system and its failings, and is the paymaster, refuses to intervene saying that the workers are private employees and complaints should be made at the labour office (JTK).

It is the hope of the workers that YB Khairy will meet them and hear their grouses when they arrive at the Health Ministry in Putrajaya. They are asking for a change of bad policy, and hoping that is reason enough for a concerned government to act.

Rani Rasiah
Central Committee
Parti Sosialis Malaysia

6/2/2022

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