From J Solomon
Last month, the Dewan Rakyat passed amendments to the Trade Unions Act to allow multiple unions to be set up by workers within the same industry or trade.
The government said the main purpose of the amendments is to abolish the restriction on setting up trade unions, including the restriction of allowing only one union to be set up in any industry, occupation or trade.
This is a major drawback in Malaysia. Having multiple unions in the workplace can prove to be disastrous for trade union rights and the well-being of workers.
It fragments their collective strength, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. It diminishes their bargaining power. It undermines the fundamental strength and solidarity that are essential to the effectiveness of unions. Moreover, it doesn’t contribute to fostering healthy and constructive labour-management relations within the country.
When numerous unions exist, each with a small membership base, they often face resource limitations and exhibit weakened bargaining power in negotiations with employers.
This scenario risks reducing Malaysian workers to modern-day slaves in their own homeland. The whole concept of having voluntary collective bargaining with minimal interference by the authorities is about providing unions and employers equal power in negotiations.
It is accepted that collective bargaining is the best way for the workers to have fair wages and conditions and improve productivity. With the multiplicity of unions at the workplace, the unions become weak, with less strength compared to employers. It is against any semblance of providing equal strength to employers and unions.
Government as the largest employer
In Malaysia, the greatest benefactor from the multiplicity of unions is the government because they are the largest employer with the most workers which include the GLCs and statutory bodies.
The move seems to be influenced and manoeuvred by those in power and their associates, under the presumption that it benefits workers.
Despite clear and articulate explanations presented to the ministers, they have chosen to ignore the cries and pleas of the workers. They proceeded to table the amendments bill and hastily passed it in Parliament.
The situation in Malaysia is deeply troubling. It is indeed disheartening to see the government, as the largest employer, potentially exploiting its position to the detriment of workers. The fact that crucial decisions affecting millions of workers were made with such a minimal representation of MPs is a stark indictment of the system.
Only 20 MPs participated in the debate on the amendments. This means that nearly 90% of the people’s representatives showed a lack of interest in the well-being of the workers. It is also concerning that some may have been present without a full understanding of the implications of what they were passing, effectively echoing the government’s stance.
It is alarming that the approval was seemingly granted based on the volume of support from these 20 MPs, without any objection raised.
The hasty passing of amendments without proper consideration or scrutiny further highlights a glaring disregard for the voices and rights of the workers. It appears that genuine concerns and pleas have fallen on deaf ears, leaving the workforce vulnerable and feeling unheard.
The attempt to justify these amendments by invoking the International Labour Organization Convention No 87, inaccurately, only adds insult to injury. The convention does not advocate for a dilution of union power through a multiplicity of unions.
Misleading claims serve only to erode trust and undermine the credibility of those in power. Let us not confuse between providing rights to workers to join their choice of unions and multiplicity of unions. ILO promotes the right of workers to join unions of their choice but it is totally against weakening of union strength through multiplicity of unions.
Informal workers left out
If their true intention was to bolster unionisation and protect workers’ rights, it’s puzzling why they have excluded millions of informal workers from this opportunity. This only serves to deepen the divide and weaken the collective voice of workers in the gig economy.
Their assertion that unions aim to monopolise is a gross misinterpretation of their fundamental purpose.
The strength of a union lies in its membership; a larger membership base empowers the union to negotiate for better social protections and working conditions. By making the amendments, the government is attempting to deprive unions from providing social protection which is the heart and soul of what the unions do.
The courts determine which agreements can be officially registered. Additionally, the human resources ministry enforces various restrictions on collective bargaining. In light of these circumstances, the proliferation of unions can significantly hinder the progress of the labour movement in Malaysia.
This will result in the interference of government agencies in the outcome of the negotiations between employers and unions which is not only counterproductive but also undermines the very essence of collective bargaining. This manipulation of agreement is a grave injustice to both workers and employers who are striving for fair and mutually beneficial arrangements.
Using ILO conventions selectively to serve their interests further erodes trust in the government’s commitment to workers’ rights.
It is imperative that the government adheres to international labour standards in a sincere and consistent manner, rather than manipulating them to suit their own agenda. The well-being and rights of workers should always be at the forefront of policy decisions, without compromise or deceit.
The workers in Malaysia deserve nothing less than a fair, just, and compassionate treatment from their government.
J Solomon is the general secretary of the National Union of Bank Employees and an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.