The Englishman, who was with the British Trade Union Council, was sent to Malaya to advise trade union leaders to eschew militant unionism and move, instead, towards moderation and create unions amenable to the government.
THE National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW), the sole national union for plantation workers in Malaysia today, was born of a merger between state-based unions. Needless to say, it was a birth accompanied by severe labour pains. A combination of factors with roots in colonial history, the post-World War II labour policy of the colonial government, and the need to contain the spread of communism in general and militant left-wing trade unions in particular helped create this awkward child.
In June 1954, five plantation state-based unions amalgamated to form the National Union of Plantation Workers. They were the Plantation Workers Union of Malaya (formerly Negeri Sembilan Indian Labour Union), Malayan Estate Workers Union (formerly Perak Estate Employees Union), Johor State Plantation Workers Union (formerly North Johor Indian Labour Union), Malacca Estate Workers Union and Alor Gajah Labour Union (in Malacca).
A moderate trade union such as the NUPW could not have developed in the charged atmosphere of the Emergency (declared by the British in June 1948 to battle communist insurgency) without guidance from the Trade Union Adviser of Malaya, John Brazier. The Englishman, who was with the British Trade Union Council, was sent to Malaya to advise trade union leaders to eschew militant unionism and move, instead, towards moderation and create unions amenable to the government.
The declaration of the Emergency provided a convenient platform for his office to identify pro-British union leaders who would be amenable to the employers’ and government’s points of view on industrial matters. In this respect, the close relationship between the adviser and some noted union leaders played a significant part in the evolution of post-war colonial labour policy. The policy in essence was the containment of left-wing union activities through a combination of repressive and responsive initiatives that influenced the trade union movement to pursue objectives that were “moderate” and “reasonable”.
Thus, in the course of his work, Brazier – with the help of the Special Branch – was able to identify union leaders who were anti-communist, of middle-class origins, who could speak English and, most importantly, who would work together with the government in building a trade union movement without left-wing tendencies. A few years after the declaration of the Emergency, Brazier succeeded in identifying and nurturing good personal relationships with leaders such as P. P. Narayanan (Plantation Workers Union of Malaya), John Emmanuel (Malayan Estate Employees Union), Govindan Nair (Johor State Plantation Workers Union), one Dawood (Alor Gajah Labour Union) and Subbiah (Malacca Estate Workers Union). It was these leaders who eventually played a key role in the formation of the NUPW.
Although Brazier identified these leaders, he had to insure there was nobody in these unions who would be sympathetic to the radical and left-wing unions. Archival records show clearly how Brazier used the Special Branch to intimidate leaders who did not follow his dictates. For instance, Rayal Jose and K.P.C. Menon, who were opposed to Narayanan’s close accommodation with the British authorities, were removed from the trade union scene through threats, Special Branch intimidation and other methods that eventually worked to the advantage of Brazier and his main ally, Narayanan.
Forming a single union for plantation workers was important for a number of reasons. First, the plantation industry was strategic in view of the significant amount of revenue generated. Second, this sector had a large number of unions and could serve as a model for the trade union movement in Malaya. Third, Brazier had the most contact with plantation trade unionists compared with other sectors; thus, the plantation sector provided the most convenient platform for shaping the direction of the trade union movement in the post-war period.
Before the integration of the five unions took place, an impression was created that the merger would assume the form of an amalgamation. When the integration process gained momentum, however, it became clear that the objective was not so much amalgamation but a full integration where member unions would lose their identity. Despite the opposition of some of the member unions, integration could not be halted.
The colonial government’s support for the merger, the backing of the influential International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the need for workers’ solidarity to deal with wage cuts, and the close alliance between Narayanan and Brazier and others ensured that the integration of the five unions into one union was beyond challenge.
But then, in the 1960s, as result of the ineffective representation of plantation labour by the NUPW, a rival union, the United Malayan Estate Workers Union, was formed in Seremban to take up the cause of estate workers. It was short-lived as it was banned by the government on the grounds that it was the front for the Communist Party of Malaya. A number of trade activists associated with this union were detained under the Internal Security Act.
With the banning of this alternative union, the NUPW emerged as the sole union for plantation workers in the country. Thus, in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the union closely accommodated with employers and the state in ensuring that plantation labour would not adopt radical measures to challenge the status quo. The union sought to seek representation by placing emphasis on collective bargaining, tripartite negotiations, and obtaining piecemeal concessions from employers. Thus, the union could not provide effective representation for labour in plantations.
Whether the NUPW can really champion the rights of plantation workers today remains doubtful. Urbanisation and commercialisation in the last two decades suggest that the country’s plantation industry might not last too long as higher labour costs and loss of land force employers to relocate to other areas. If this is going to be the likely trend in years to come, then the union might have problems in terms of recruitment and representation.