A last hurrah for the labour movement?

Although a nationwide protest organised by the Malaysian Trades Union Congress on Nov 3 was declared a success by its organisers, the modest turnout of some 2,000 people at 18 locations nationwide signals that workers themselves do not feel empowered to send the authorities a strong message about the proposed amendments. 

Written by R B Bhattacharjee, The Edge    

The storm that is brewing over the proposed amendments to the Employment Act 1955 has so far not blown as hard as it could, considering the fundamental changes to labour relations that could result from the revised enactment.

Trade unions are agitating against the amendments since they will allow employers to hire contract workers through third party agencies, undermining the fundamental employer-employee relationship. This, the unions argue, will be against the workers’ best interests on a number of fronts. For one, the new law would absolve employers of their responsibility for their workers’ welfare, which will rest with the labour contractor. Wages would also be driven down as labour suppliers would bid against each other to secure contracts from employers. Further, jobs will be less secure as employers would be freer to cut down on their workforce than if the workers were their permanent employees. Moreover, employees would be discouraged from joining unions as employers would be free to hire non-union members who would have less collective bargaining power.

Trade unions are naturally extremely worried not just on behalf of the workers, but because their clout would be greatly diminished as union membership goes into a downward spiral.  Indeed, the ongoing protests against the amendments could well be a last hurrah for unions in the country.

Although a nationwide protest organised by the Malaysian Trades Union Congress on Nov 3 was declared a success by its organisers, the modest turnout of some 2,000 people at 18 locations nationwide signals that workers themselves do not feel empowered to send the authorities a strong message about the proposed amendments.

At any rate, generating public awareness about the changing labour scenario will likely be a test of the trade union movement’s readiness to engage its stakeholders at a crucial stage in its existence.

If the shift in the power relationship involving business, government and labour looks more or less inevitable, it may be because some of the practices described earlier have already crept into the employment scene, not  just in Malaysia but worldwide as well.

It is also a reality that governments everywhere have become increasingly susceptible to business pressure to make the labour market as flexible as possible. This plea for maximum efficiency in the utilisation of resources, including labour, has left governments less willing to exercise their balancing role as regulators to ensure that the welfare of workers is not compromised in their eagerness to attract investors.

Critics of the proposed amendments have heaped some rather strong language on the government for its pro-business move, calling it “a return to slavery”, “anti-labour” and “anti-union”, among other things.

The government for its part has pointed out that the amendments were drawn up after extensive consultations with stakeholders, including labour movement representatives.

Ironically, Human Resources Minister Datuk S Subramaniam has been quoted as saying that the legalisation of the labour contractor system is intended to protect the rights of workers by ensuring that labour suppliers are registered and monitored.

In the face of growing turbulence in the job market, many employees themselves have been seen to look out for themselves first instead of going for collective representation for the greater good of all workers. This is seen for example when companies are downsizing, when employees seek to make themselves more valuable to their employers in order to be retained over their colleagues.

Employers have the luxury of picking whoever goes along with their plan, including accepting wage cuts and increased responsibilities, as their workers scramble for a reduced number of positions.

While industrial action could become less common over time as individual workers on contract feel the need to safeguard his or her own job, this may be more due to the weakening of the labour movement rather than increasing worker satisfaction on the job.

A more fundamental reason for this shift would be the growing influence of corporations over economies in comparison with governments and workers organisations.

When this imbalance reaches an extreme disequilibrium, a breakdown in the social system could result, with street protests, sit-ins, voter revolts and other civil actions taking place.

As actors in modern society, most of us are so completely sold on the corporatisation of our economies that it is almost impossible to imagine that alternative economic and social systems are viable, have many positive balancing attributes and indeed have existed for many millennia. For us to acknowledge that fact, the current economic chaos that has its roots in the uncontrolled leveraging of the global financial system, must run its course.

Unfortunately, the pain that accompanies the structural corrections that are taking place will have to be endured before the wisdom that guides more sustainable and just social and economic systems become acceptable to mainstream society.

Until such time, however, more flexible labour regulations should be balanced by stronger safety nets to serve as a buffer for an increasing prospect of unemployment as capital keeps shifting in search of the most efficient markets.

In gentler times, the extended family and a stronger rural network provided a respite from economic hardship resulting from job losses.

Today, that option is less viable for an increasing number of families, while the retraining and job placement schemes that are in place are far from adequate and riddled with inefficiencies.

For now, it is disquieting that the government’s push for the labour law amendments have not been accompanied by the concurrent attention to safeguards to prevent workers from being victimised by unethical employers.

R B Bhattacharjee is an associate editor with The Edge.