Friday, October 21, 2016
INTERVIEW Human Resources Minister Richard Riot Jaem's performance has left Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) secretary-general N Gopal Kishnam wondering if he knows what his responsibilities are.
The ministry, he said, had yet to respond to MTUC's proposed amendments to the current labour laws - amendments that it confirmed receiving from the congress two years ago.
“It is more than two years, the Human Resources Ministry said that it had received (the proposed amendments) and is still studying them.
“In between that, the ministry’s secretary-general has already changed three times and the document is still there,” said Gopal in an interview with Malaysiakini.
This showed that the ministry was not serious in listening to the workers' plight, he said.
“Why do I say that? The government didn’t bother to listen to (proposed) amendments to our labour laws.
“They made some amendments but on most occasions, the employers are not listening to the employees,” he said.
Despite meetings held between MTUC and the ministry, Gopal said the union’s requests were not heeded simply because the “trade union density” in the country was very low.
“It’s not that workers are not keen to join trade unions, but the system has been structured in such a way that it’s not easy to form a union in every workplace,” he said.
In the following excerpt, Gopal talks about the formation of unions as well as the issue of minimum wage and labour laws in the country.
What is the process to register a trade union?
Why trade unions never improved in Malaysia is simply because of the regulations. Registering a trade union in this country is very easy; all we need is only seven workers. Get the standard application form from the Human Resources Ministry and the group just needs to fill in the blanks and they can apply to register a union.
But getting recognition from employers is the problem. To represent workers, you must first get recognition from the employer. And 99 percent of employers will not give the recognition.
Subsequently, the union has to report the matter to the Industrial Relations Department. The department will ascertain the right union for the group of workers and whether the union has the majority of workers supporting it.
Whether this is the right union or not, the department … to ascertain the majority of workers (support the union), they must conduct a secret ballot. To conduct a secret ballot, there is the ‘B form’ which indicates the number of employees who are working in that workplace on the day the union sought recognition.
The officer will take a very long time to submit this form - sometimes it takes two years. For the secret ballot, the department will fix a day for everyone to come and vote whether they want the union or not.
The issue is this - if the secret ballot is conducted after two years, some workers would have left the employment and migrant workers would have even gone back to their country of origin. If they don’t come to vote, that would be construed as voting against the union.
It took the ministry three years to conduct a secret ballot for one company; by the time the secret ballot was conducted, 50 percent of the migrant workers had already left. MTUC is pushing the minister to change this for many years (but) until today, the minister is not changing the regulations.
What is the current number of unions?
The latest figure is about 270 unions in the country. The number of unions over the last 30 years has increased tremendously but that does not reflect in the membership because of enterprise unions.
A workplace where there are only 50 workers, they can form (a union) and anywhere there is more than seven workers they can register a union. But whether that union serves as a union and serves their members is a question that needs to be answered.
In fact, at one point of time, when we only had eight million people in the workforce, we had about 10 percent membership (in unions).
Whereas now, with 14.2 million people, we have only about 800,000 members. (So) percentage wise, it has dropped.
This is partly due to the presence of migrant workers. Although they want to join, the employers are stopping them from joining trade unions. When they (employers) hear anyone trying to join, they (workers) will be sent back in the next available flight so others are scared.
What is your view on the country’s labour laws and regulations? Are they adequate enough for the benefit of workers?
Over the period of 70 years, there were amendments taking place. But in most occasions, those amendments were more to protect employers than employees. For example in 2012, there was one amendment on the payment of wages. The Employment Act 1955 states that wages should be paid within seven days from the cut-off period. This was implemented in 1955, there were no computers then but employers could manually calculate and pay accordingly.
But now the amendment says a company can pay one month later for workers who work overtime on off days and public holidays. We are in the information technology (IT) world, we are supposed to get our salary much earlier, but the Malaysian government has amended in which it is giving room for employers to manipulate poor workers. That’s why I say the amendments are for the employers.
Why do you think most labour laws are for the benefit of employers?
I think that the government is friendlier towards investors than to the workers.
What is MTUC’s latest stand on minimum wage and the implementation of the current system?
We are not in agreement with the government on three issues. As per the Mimimum Wage Act, it should have been reviewed and the minister should have made the announcement on Jan 1, 2015 but it was delayed for 18 months.
The earlier (minimum wage) figure was of RM1,200 but the government only announced RM1,000 – that’s another unhappiness.
We are also not happy that the government is dividing Malaysians, especially the private sector, with the minimum wage (RM1,000 for peninsular Malaysia and RM920 for Sabah and Sarawak). The actual fact is, the poverty line in these two states compared to peninsular Malaysia is much higher. When the poverty line is higher, how can the minimum wage be lower than the peninsula? The nearest we are expecting is at least for it to be similar to peninsular Malaysia.
'Can you comment on the issue of cost of living and ways to improve it?
MTUC is in the process of sending a letter to the prime minister as part of our Budget wish list and our focus is the issue of cost of living which is going up every day. The government has to come out with a proper mechanism on how to control prices.
(Also) we are requesting for personal relief on income tax. At the moment the government is giving RM9,000, which is insufficient. We are not denying that over the years the government has given small improvements but this time it has to be at least RM12,000.
And we don’t want the government to withdraw any subsidies extended to some corporations. If they withdraw the subsidy, the poor rakyat will end up paying. Corporations are businesses – for them, either the government pays or you pay. At the end of the day, they want the same profit for their business.
The cost of houses is also very high. If not the government, who else can control this? The government came out with an affordable housing scheme but with a RM300,000 property with an income of RM3,500, how is this affordable?
We also don’t agree with developers extending loans. We have enough loan sharks in the country, we don’t want a new problem. The government should instead ask banks to be more relaxed rather than going very hard. So housing is another area that is of our concern. We are looking forward to some sort of leverage from the government to overcome this issue.
What is MTUC’s future direction?
The challenges are getting greater, we need to equip (ourselves) with the proper facilities to face that. MTUC will be seeing our next triennial delegates conference (TDC) very soon (on Nov 29 and Nov 30). So whoever is elected to positions, they have bigger tasks to carry out with the government, employers, as well as other NGOs. So that is going to be the difficult task of MTUC.
Of course, there is some light at the end of the tunnel due to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), but the labour chapter alone is not going to improve Malaysian standards.
Challenges are going to be greater in a different form but we have to prepare ourselves, and I believe that the MTUC leadership is in the position to face all that.-Malaysiakini, 15/10/2016