Great trials and tribulations for Malaysian workers

Speech by DAP Organising Secretary, Mr Lim Kit Siang, when inaugurating the DAP Johore Labour Bureau in Johore Bahru on Saturday, 8th June 1968 at 5 pm.

The workers of Malaysia are entering a period of great trials and tribulations. They are facing their greatest challenge and onslaught from the management in the last two decades.

There are already many ominous signs. For the past month, there had been growing and spreading labour unrest in the estates.

Between six to eight thousand rubber tappers and workers had been retrenched. Major strikes are increasing all over the country. In Johore, 1,700 tappers and workers in the Johore Labis Estate in Cha’ah had been on strike for a month. All the indications are that industrial unrest are going to increase and even spread to other sectors of the economy, rather than decrease and subside.

In the public sector, government unions are getting more and more restive and threatening. The outright rejection of the recommendations of the Suffian Salaries Commission was only the latest in the string of broken government promises and pledges.

Government servants in the lower income groups are particularly hard hit, as their pay had remain static over the years, while the cost of living had steeply risen. In other words, their purchasing power had shrunk smaller and smaller.

The growing crisis in the Malaysian labour scene are caused by three factors:

(1) Firstly, the economic depression and decline of the Malaysian economy, caused by the collapse of the main dollar-earner, rubber, and the short-sighted and wasteful economic policies of the Alliance government for a decade. The rise of the rubber price in the last few days is unlikely to affect the long-term downward trend of Malaysian economy.

(2) Secondly, the greed of managements and out-dated mentality of employers , who still treat labour as enemies and wage-slaves, and not as equal and dignified partners in a joint economic enterprise.

(3) Thirdly, a staunchly anti-labour government, which will give every encouragement to capital to exploit labour.

The drop in the rubber price has meant a reduction in the fat profits of rubber barons. It does not mean that rubber barons and estates are losing money. It only means that they are not getting as fat a margin of profit as when rubber fetched over a dollar a pound.

A recent issue of the Planter, the Journal of the Incorporated Society of Planters, calculated that estates could make an easy profit even when rubber was at the level of 30 cents a pound.

However, rubber barons and estates in Malaysia seem to understand only one law: how to make as fat a profit as possible , regardless of the human and social cost. If the solution is by retrenching workers and to exploit existing workers by demanding longer hours of work and lesser pay, that solution will be adopted.

This is exactly what is happening. At a period of economic depression, management are tempted to break unions which stand in their way of doing what they like with their workers.

This is the basic reason for the spate of industrial unrest throughout the country.

In such a situation, it requires a pro-labour government to maintain a right balance between the aspirations of both capital and labour.

Unfortunately, in Malaysia, we have a government which is staunchly anti–labour. The Alliance government professes to have the welfare of labour at heart. It claims that union officials will be protected from victimisation, intimidation and dismissal by employers.

The workers in this country have a mile-long number of instances to prove that union leaders had been systematically dismissed, victimised and intimidated for legitimate trade union work.

In Petaling Jaya, for instance, the General Secretary of the Match Industry Workers’ Union was dismissed by the employer merely because he communicated to the employer the union decision warning the company to stop harassing the workers.

In the estates, on the ground of retrenchments necessitated by the Oehlers Plantation Award, trade union officials are invariably the first to be dismissed.

The times ahead for Malaysian workers are going to be a hard and tough one.

Unemployment will mount, and retrenchment will increase.

Whether the Malaysian workers can emerge from the trial with their interests and welfare intact will depend on whether they can achieve two objectives:

(1) industrial unity of all Malaysian workers, or at least get the majority of the Malaysian workers organised, instead of the present 20 per cents of organised labour.

(2) A dedicated, intelligent and imaginative union leadership which can formula a strategy to guide Malaysian workers through the stormy waters ahead.

What is really disturbing is that there does not seem to be an awareness in labour circles about the growing crisis for labour.

The DAP Labour Bureau will do its part to arouse greater public awareness of the problems that are building up for labour so that more Malaysian workers and labour leaders can be prepared for them.

The DAP Labour Bureau was formed, not to rival any trade union organisation, but to make its own contribution towards the cause of labour, by focusing and highlighting labour problems and issues.

It is open to all democratic socialists who have the cause of labour at heart, and is not confined only to DAP members.

Audited on 2021-03-19