By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 21 (IPS) - As Malaysia celebrates 50 years as an independent nation, this month, there is little to cheer for some 12 million workers who have been dealt a body blow by a government enchanted with neo-liberal policies that promote businesses over their welfare.
The government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is keen on privatising water and healthcare, while removing subsidies on fuel and food as part of pursuing a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States.
And now it has tabled wide amendments to two labour laws that lawyers and trade union leaders say will deprive the workers of significant and long-standing protective measures.
The amendments were tabled last month without adequate consultation with trade unions who are members of a tripartite council along with business and the government, opposition lawmakers said.
"It felt like a bomb had exploded in parliament," said Syed Shahir, president of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC), an umbrella body for private sector unions, referring to the sudden tabling of the amendment bills.
Many among the 12 million work force are still reeling from the shock. "The amendments were furtively done and suddenly tabled in parliament without warning and adequate notice," said Sivaranjini Manickam, an organiser of workers who is coordinating workers’ protests against the bills.
‘’The amendment bills are coming up in parliament for a final decision on Aug. 27," she told IPS in an interview. "With the 92 percent majority the government has in parliament we expect the changes to be approved unless the workers rise in protest."
Sivaranjini is fighting hard along with dozens of trade unions, NGOs and individuals collectively gathered under a coalition called JERIT, which is hoping to mobilise enough opposition to force the government to withdraw the offensive bills.
"There is really no cause for workers to celebrate 50 years of independence when they hit you this hard," Sivaranjini said. "The workers are steadily losing their rights to employers. It’s business that has cause to celebrate...not workers."
Besides leafleting, JERIT has started a mass signature campaign and an online petition to mobilise workers.
Together with opposition political parties, it plans to launch political protest campaigns with nationwide demonstrations, pickets and strikes.
The bills would change various clauses in the Industrial Relations Act 1967 and the Trade Union Act 1959 -- two labour laws that provide significant protection for workers against exploitation and unwarranted dismissal. They also guarantee right to association, to form trade unions and to gain recognition and grievance mechanisms to safeguard the interests of aggrieved employees.
Although often ponderous and sometimes blamed for delays, these legislations have historically played a meaningful role to defend workers from the excesses of capitalist exploitation. Labour experts now say if the changes get through they will make it difficult for workers to form meaningful unions and win recognition from employers and the Registrar General of Trade Unions.
At the same time, the changes make it easy for workers to form in-house unions, virtually turning them into clubs and stopping them from gaining strength by joining national unions. "The changes if approved will considerably weaken workers and their trade unions," said Arumugam Sivananthan, senior official with MTUC.
Another amendment to the law removes the discretionary powers of industrial court judges when giving monetary awards for unfair dismissal. The changes will compel judges to walk a thin, ugly line when disputes arise between workers and employers.
The time for workers to respond to allegations of unfair dismissal has also been either removed or tightened. "A worker having lost his job is a man in desperate straits. He has to fend for his family and he can be easily distracted," said Sivananthan. "But the proposed changes penalise him for oversight…it does not penalise the employers," he told IPS.
Other changes include linking wages to productivity, annual review of workers’ performance, and by extension his wages, and numerous other "adjustments" that collectively take away basic protection against exploitation.
"Instead of promoting industrial harmony the proposed changes are regressive and oppressive and give a blank cheque to employers to sack workers at their whim," said G. Rajasegaran, secretary general of the MTUC. "It is a body blow to industrial harmony," he said. "We will fight this move."
The amendments according to veteran labour lawyers are lopsided and regressive and violate basic human rights as enshrined in the Malaysian constitution and run contrary to the United Nations Charter.
"More significantly it is a violation of Malaysia’s own Human Rights (Commission) Act which was approved by parliament in 1999," said Lobo Boni, a veteran labour lawyer. He said the proposed changes will lead to abuse and are a serious violation of citizen’s rights and made void by various articles of the constitution. "If approved it will be a serious breach of fundamental human rights," he told IPS. "This cannot happen or be allowed as the nation celebrates 50 years of independence."