In hard times, unions as troubleshooters, not troublemakers

A former unionist says unions are more relevant than ever amid the wave of retrenchments as businesses struggle to weather the Covid-19 outbreak.

PETALING JAYA: The recent dismal predictions about the job market and the economy have made unions more relevant than ever, despite their waning influence over the past decades, a former trade union leader says.

P Arunasalam said with retrenchments expected to affect 12% of employees, unions could help buffer the situation by ensuring that those who are axed are not denied compensation but instead treated fairly and considered for re-employment.

Arunalsalam was once deputy secretary-general of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC).

He said he took a pragmatic approach to retrenchments, adding that this was often the last resort for employers seeking to keep their businesses afloat.

“Unions will need to negotiate a win-win situation for both employers and employees to survive,” he told FMT, adding that employers should view unions as troubleshooters rather than troublemakers.

“Employers have the right to retain their business, but on the condition they do not victimise workers because we will fight for them.”

The Malaysian Employers’ Federation has predicted that 12% of workers will lose their jobs, saying the economy will remain “very weak” until the middle of next year.

P Arunasalam says employers should view unions as troubleshooters instead of troublemakers.

Arunasalam believes the number will be higher, in view of political uncertainty which could drive away investors. He said some well-to-do companies might even take advantage of the current slowdown to cut costs by letting go of staff.

“This is why unions are needed, more than ever,” he said.

How the union movement became weak

However, Arunasalam lamented that unions were now “fragile and weak” compared to during the 1970s and 1980s when the labour movement in Malaysia was a star in Asia.

Back then, Arunasalam recalled, unions were “militant” in their push for workers’ rights.

He blamed their dwindling influence on former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad who, during his first stint in government, introduced laws that allowed the formation of in-house movements.

He said unions became fragmented, making it difficult for national unions to organise workers, unite and represent them.

These days, Arunasalam said, unions were timid. “They expect MTUC to do everything. The labour movement needs to re-strategise, re-brand and re-engineer itself,” he said.

He also urged union leaders to get together and come up with a plan that included dismantling in-house unions and merging with national movements.

“They need to do some soul-searching as to why they are weak, not respected and often bullied.”

Arunasalam also spoke of leadership problems, saying some outfits were “no better than political parties”.

He said some leaders should know when to step down as they had become too comfortable or lost touch with the situation on the ground. Others were complacent as they had not experienced the hardships endured by their predecessors, he added.

He also called for proactivity on the part of unions, saying such movements were now reactive to the point that they did not take on challenges. “Their attitude is ‘why should I rock the boat?'”

In the past, he noted, unions had even had a hand in some of the government policies.

Likewise, he said unions required the will to change in order to become more progressive. “You can’t sit in a chair and expect miracles.”

The need for political will to make changes

National Union of Flight Attendants Malaysia president Ismail Nasaruddin agreed that unions would remain relevant regardless of the times, saying employees would turn to them at the first sign of trouble.

He said unions had in fact become more in demand as many workers had been retrenched.

“We have seen a spike of employees approaching unions after they were let go during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

Concurring that unions had been a force to be reckoned with in the 1970s, he said many workers were now afraid of signing up due to pressure or threats from employers.

“The threats are real and workers are too afraid of losing their jobs, so they remain silent and ignorant of what unions could actually do for them.”

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