Effective labour movement for a better Sarawak

What exactly does Labour Day represent? This question is quite pertinent now because tomorrow is May 1 which is a public holiday to mark Labour Day.

To some of us perhaps it’s just another holiday or to some employers perhaps a day of lost productivity. However, it is actually a holiday to celebrate the achievements and contributions of workers.

Labour Day came about because of the efforts of the labour union movement in the West. The pro-activeness of the western labour movements has been instrumental in the attainment of many key achievements that have led to many positive measures which have had significant impact on the quality of our working lives today.

Without the labour movement perhaps we would most likely not have the eight-hour workday and many more benefits that we take for granted today.

The labour unions initiated the demand for the eight-hour work day so as to allow workers to have eight hours for recreation and eight hours for rest.

In many countries, Labour Day is also linked to International Workers’ Day. In others, it is celebrated on different dates according to its relevance to their labour movements.

The Malaysian Constitution guarantees us the right to form and join a trade union. Currently, the Trade Unions Act 1959 and the Industrial Relations Act 1967 regulates unions and its activities.

Our counterparts in Malaya have had quite a long history and played an important role in the shaping of policies.

This was especially so in the early days before the formation of Malaysia and for some time after that.

However, in recent years their influence has waned and union membership has been dropping.

So what is the relevance of the labour movement in Sarawak? What has it done for workers in the state? Does a labour movement actually exist in Sarawak?

Well, there is an umbrella organisation for trade unions in Sarawak, referred to as the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), Sarawak Division.

There are about 25 Sarawak affiliated unions under the Sarawak MTUC. There might be more unions here but perhaps are not affiliates of MTUC.

According to a report in 2011 by Andrew Lo who is MTUC Sarawak secretary, in Sarawak only 4 percent of the workforce is unionised and most of them are in the public sector.

He reported that the private sector in Sarawak has about 10,000 union members which represent less than 1 percent of the workforce.

With such low figures, the unions, unfortunately, do not currently hold much influence or bargaining power.

There are some unionists such as Andrew Lo who have from time to time raised pertinent issues.

But there is only so much a few people can do to get a government to change policies. It is indeed a challenging task for anyone who holds office in a Sarawak-based union.

So while unions do exist here, I would say there is currently no “labour movement” which can effect much quicker change.

Overall most of the individual unions have done a good job of representing their members in negotiations with their respective employers.

One such union is the Sarawak Bank Employees Union which is quite active. It would be good if more could emulate them.

I would say “syabas” to those unionists who keep trying to improve the rights and working conditions of their members.

Prior to the implementation of the latest minimum pay of RM1,100, there was much lobbying done by Sarawak employers to lower the amount, fortunately to no effect.

To most employers, the current minimum pay scale is seen as a burden.

There might be some merit in some cases for the smaller employers especially in Sarawak.

However, employers also must realise this is needed to ensure that employees also need a basic income to keep their head above water.

Although we have many employment-related laws in place to ensure a balanced and equitable approach to employees, the problem as usual in Malaysia is enforcement.

One of the subjects I have been lecturing over the last 15 years is Labour Law and I have come across my former students who do not receive the benefits the law has accorded them.

Some of their employers do not contribute towards their Employee Provident Fund (EPF) or Social Security Organisation (Socso).

There are even instances where some only get five or six days of annual leave.

I have even come across several cases where employees after many months of employment have not been given their employment contracts.

There are various other examples of non-compliance such as forced leave during the festive season.

While overall most employers in Sarawak do comply with employment laws much is still left to be done.

There are also employees who are not aware of their rights under the employment laws leading to them being exploited. More need to be done to increase their awareness.

The Labour Department and other relevant agencies need to take on more proactive roles in increasing awareness and enforcement of employment-related laws.

There are also cases of human trafficking being practised in Sarawak exploiting foreign workers.

If we do not like Sarawakians being exploited overseas as in the recent case of our people in Cambodia, we also should not allow it to happen to foreigners in Sarawak.

There are many points that can be made to advocate for workers’ rights and I am sure our authorities are aware of them.

So while some of us celebrate Labour Day, we should thank those who had in the past fought for the benefits we have today.

It is important and would be ideal to have at least an assistant minister of Human Resources in the Sarawak government cabinet.

After all, our people constitute the critical factor that further boost Sarawak’s economy.

A properly balanced approach to give better attention to health, safety and environment of workers is critical for Sarawakians.

I am not advocating for a radicalised type of labour movement but one with a larger membership base with a focus on a collaborative approach to further enhance Sarawak to greater heights.

The support of the government on labour issues would really be putting “Sarawakians First”.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.