The fundamental right to freedom of association and the right to organize have been instrumental in the working class struggle for socio-economic justice.
Even before the adoption of Convention 87 of the International Labor Organization in 1948, the principles of freedom of association and the right to organize were alive in what was then Malaysia between the 1920s and 1948.
During this period, unions were organized and functioned as general unions, going beyond the bondage of establishment, trade, profession or industry.
This culminated in the establishment of the Pan-Malaysian General Trade Unions in 1946. In 1947, the group changed its name to the All-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU).
In 1947, the PMFTU was credited with organizing over 50% of the total workers in Malaya, representing around 85% of all existing unions.
If the status quo had been allowed to prevail, our labor movement would have continued to function with freedom of association, not having to limit itself to the restrictive definition of establishment, trade, occupation or industry – a question controversial between trade unions with the amendments to the Trade Unions Act 1959 recently passed by Parliament.
Undoubtedly, these amendments opened a Pandora’s box with diverging views ranging from acceptance to objections.
Proponents argue that the changes are in line with ILO Convention 87.
Opponents argue this would open the floodgates to a “multiplicity” of union representation.
Despite the differing opinions, let’s look at the big picture.
The pro-capital government has put in place an action plan to facilitate the smooth passage of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trade Agreement of the Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Unions generally welcome migration to internationally accepted labor standards, including Convention 87.
However, the reason given by the Minister of Human Resources when tabling the amendments to the law on trade unions irritates me. In tabling the amendments, the minister made it clear that they had to comply with the conditions set by the drafters of the CPTPP.
The government’s decision to make changes to the Trade Unions Act is clearly motivated by its desire to be pro-business – rather than to bring about a gradual transformation of the trade union ecosystem.
In simple terms, it is a matter of succumbing to external forces rather than an organic attempt to conform to fundamental ILO Conventions. If the amendments to the trade union law are based on the preconditions set by the dominant partners of the CPTPP, we must ask ourselves if we are not compromising our sovereignty.
The government is said to have downplayed the CPTPP’s investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions: the country may well be subject to private arbitration, which would bypass the national court system. It compromises our sovereignty.
So why did the government decide to change the law on trade unions and turn a blind eye to ISDS? There can be no other interpretation, other than that this apparent decision to comply with employment standards was to accommodate the favorable investor or business class – rather than a sincere attempt to uplift the class. factory Girl.
In 1948, the settlers demanded that trade unions be registered and, under this shield, castrated the progressive labor movement. Between the settlers and our government, the only distinction is that they are from different eras. Both subscribe to the protection and promotion of business elites.
After 65 years of toxic, odious and repressive labor laws, changes to existing labor laws appear to be driven by a desire to accommodate the demands of the CPTPP and free trade agreements.
The amendments do not appear to be a genuine attempt to change the organizational landscape of trade unions. Instead, the amendments to the Trade Unions Act are just a creative maneuver to drive a wedge among the leaders of the trade union movement.
The real challenge is not the demerits of these labor law changes, but the abdication of our nation’s sovereignty through the CPTPP.
Let’s build collectivism to demand that the government withdraw from the CPTPP, because the consequences for the nation’s sovereignty far outweigh the limited cost-benefits of this trade deal.
K Veeriah is a seasoned trade unionist based in Bukit Mertajam, Penang