Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour

MALAYSIA: Labour Movement Wants Migrant Workers in Unions

Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, Mar 1 2005 (IPS) - The diplomatic flap over undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia and the failure by errant Malaysian employers to settle wages due to them, before a crackdown that began on Mar. 1, could have been avoided had these workers been encouraged to join local trade unions.

This is among a host of issues that Malaysia’s rejuvenated labour movement will have to grapple with after watershed elections for top posts in the country’s umbrella trade union body swept in a new reform-minded leadership.

The Mar. 1 crackdown on an estimated one million undocumented migrant workers was already postponed a few times.

But Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was adamant this time when he announced his decision on Feb. 14 at a joint news conference after talks with visiting Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

More than half a million enforcement personnel and volunteer vigilantes have already begun pursuing these undocumented workers. Those arrested could be jailed, whipped or deported.

When it was discovered that some Malaysian employers appeared to have taken advantage of the impending crackdown and withheld wages due to these targeted migrant workers, it threatened to sour diplomatic ties with Indonesia.

Jakarta said it would sue Malaysian employers who refused to settle wages due to Indonesian migrant workers, sparking concern in Kuala Lumpur.

The problem of illegal workers must be tackled at source, said some analysts, pointing to the syndicates and agents that lure these workers and dupe them with false promises. Once here, migrant workers are left in a vulnerable position as, in many cases, their employers hold on to their passports and their work permits bar them from switching jobs. Often, for the workers, it’s a case of either grin and bear it or run away and lose their passports, thus rendering themselves ”illegal”.

For K George, an 85-year-old former vice-president of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) – the umbrella body for trade unions in the country – the solution is simple. ”Foreign workers must be allowed to join (Malaysian) unions,” he told IPS.

Had they been allowed, ”we would have been able to minimise problems with illegal workers and unpaid wages,” he added.

George explained that the immigration status of migrant workers would have come to light much earlier when workers’ applications to join trade unions were processed. ”The unions could have taken over the job of ensuring that migrant workers had proper work permits and immigration documents.”

The MTUC will have to tackle these and other issues after its stunning elections recently swept in new leaders, raising fresh hopes for workers.

On Dec. 30, the team aligned to incumbent MTUC secretary general G Rajasekaran made a clean sweep of all contested union leadership positions. Rajasekaran, a respected unionist, had previously been stymied in championing the rights of workers due to leadership differences within the Malaysian labour movement.

This time around, Rajasekaran’s ally, Syed Shahir Syed Mohamud, sensationally defeated Zainal Rampak, who had helmed the MTUC for 20 years, to clinch the presidency after four failed attempts. During the latter part of his tenure, Zainal had joined the ruling United Malays National Organisation and was appointed as senator, a post often awarded to ruling coalition loyalists – developments that eroded the MUTC’s standing in the eyes of many.

Rajasekaran himself staved off a strong challenge from Zainal’s ally, N. Siva Subramaniam. The clean sweep by Rajasekaran and Syed Shahir’s team catapulted the credibility of the MTUC to a new high – and did not go unnoticed at the international level.

Rajasekaran was promptly elected the president of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions – Asian And Pacific Regional Organisation (ICFTU-APRO) for a four-year term beginning Feb. 4.

He is the first Malaysian in three decades to hold that post – a sign that the MTUC has emerged from the dark years of former autocratic prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who stepped down in 2003.

Over the 22 years of Mahathir’s tenure, workers’ rights were gradually whittled away.

During the recent Chinese New Year holidays, Ragu, a Malaysian security guard on duty as usual at his post at a residential complex, looked glum.

”We no longer get paid extra for working on public holidays,” he said, with an air of resignation. ”We used to, but not anymore – same pay, public holiday or no public holiday.”

Ragu is typical of many Malaysian workers who are unaware of their rights and their collective bargaining power. Out of the more than 10 million workers in Malaysia, fewer than 10 per cent are trade union members. This leaves the vast majority of workers – including migrant workers – vulnerable to exploitation. It is situation that employers relish.

In the past, the MTUC has adopted an ambivalent position towards migrant workers. Some unionists saw the influx of these workers as depressing wages levels in the country and thwarting attempts to lobby for a minimum wage.

Syed Shahir said the issue had to be seen from the perspective of human dignity.

”We are looking at (the situation of) workers, whether they are local or foreign,” he told IPS. ”Of course, the MTUC, as a national labour centre, is focused on local workers, but we cannot ignore the exploitation of any worker.”

In theory, migrant workers may join trade unions though they cannot be elected as office- bearers in these unions.

But, in practice, according to Syed Shahir, the contracts between the migrant workers and the labour recruitment contractors in their country of origin stipulate that they cannot join associations and political parties. ”The question is does this include unions?” he asked.

Apart from attempting to increase membership of trade unions in Malaysia, the new MTUC leadership is also set to revive its long-standing campaign for a minimum wage.

Officially, Malaysia’s poverty line is set at a monthly household income of just over 500 ringgit (125 U.S. dollars) but critics say this is unrealistic and the real figure should be double that or more. The MTUC has in the past called for a monthly minimum wage of 900 ringgit (225 dollars).

”We must keep on pushing (for a minimum wage) and prove to the government that it is needed in order for a person to live a decent life,” said Syed Shahir, adding that it won’t be easy and the MTUC would need a lot of support from all parties.

”What dignity are you talking about if your salary is 380 to 400 ringgit (95 to 100 dollars)? We are the only country in this region without a minimum wage.”

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