Minimum Wage Law for Workers

Since the resumption of Parliaments in February 1971 till now, one of the constant subjects my colleagues and I in the DAP have kept pressing for inside this Chamber is for the enactment of legislation to fix basic minimum wages for workers, to ensure that they and their dependents enjoy the basic human needs of food, clothing, housing and schooling.

Unfortunately, this proposal, to my knowledge, had never received the serious consideration of the government, probably for the simple reason that there is not a single Cabinet Minister who had a labour past, and who understands and sympathises with the sufferings, aspirations and hopes of the working class.

Now and then, of course, government Ministers would express surprise at the low wages that are being paid to workers. Thus, at the end of last year, the Prime Minister, while on a visit to Johore Bahru, expressed shock that workers were being paid $1.50 to $2 a day, and he directed a study on the low wages being paid to workers.

Nothing, however, came out of such study, or expression of Ministerial concern. In fact, as far as I know, the question of the feasibility of introducing legislation to fix minimum wage for workers had never merited sufficient government attention in the form of a Cabinet paper for top government study and decision. This question is killed at the lower Labour Ministry levels.

The need for minimum basic wage to ensure that workers enjoy basic human conditions of life is more and more urgent, with the unchecked inflation in the country, which according to the latest Consumer Price Index is now around 19%.

Workers’ income and purchasing power have been slashed so drastically that there is a great drop in their standard of living. Even the cost of living allowance that is being paid by the government to government employees as relief has failed to restore the purchasing power of the lower income groups.

As a result of the unchecked inflation, which has reduced further the already meagre earnings of the workers, industrial unrest has multipled in the country.

These are the figures of strikes and the number of man-days lost in the last five years to show the seriousness of the problem:

Year No. of Strikes Workers involved Total man days lost
1969 49 8750 76779
1970 17 1216 1867
1971 45 5311 20265
1972 66 9701 33455
1973 66 14002 40866
1974 (Up to 31.3.74) 29 29770 13809

Thus, this year, from the first quarter’s trend, the number of workers involved in strikes will increase by ten-fold when compared to 1970, while the total number of man-days lost will increase about 60 fold.

If we make a dispassionate study, we find that at the root of the mounting industrial unrest throughout the country is the common factor of the workers not being paid sufficiently to make ends meet.

For industrial peace, for social justice, the government should not delay any longer in enacting minimum wage legislation for workers The Minister for Labour and Manpower had said in this House when replying to a question by my colleague, the Member of Parliament for Seremban Timor, Dr. Chen Man Hin, that the reason why the government did not agree with minimum wage legislation is because wages and conditions of employment were generally worked out through collective bargaining and that the government encouraged both employers and workers to headequated organised.

The enactment of minimum wage legislation is no substitute for collective bargaining between employers and workers, but a recognition of the fact that collective bargaining, unregulated in the form of fixing a minimum wage, is in fact permitting the stronger party, namely the management, to dictate the terms of employment and wages which it could impose on the weak, especially the unorganised workers who constitute 90 percent of the working population.

Malaysia has not yet reached a stage when all employers have a social conscience and will not exploit workers to the utmost for the object of maximising profits, regardless of the hardships and suffering of the workers.

Collective bargaining and industrial relations in Malaysia is still very much the law of the jungle the survival of the fittest. And invariably, it is the managements who are stronger than the workers.

Thus, only a few days ago, in Malacca, the Sin Heng Chan (Malaya) Sdn. Bhd., the biggest animal-feed factory in Malaysia, which makes millions of dollars of profits a year, terminated the services of 35 workers who had worked from 8-12 years, not because the company was making losses, but ironically because it had made big profits, and the company was expanding and modernising and had installed a automatic system. These 35 workers could be re-fitted in other jobs in the company, but the company, instead of rewarding the workers for the years of dedication and hard work which make the factory’s present modernisation, expansion and mounting profits possible, terminated their services and threw them out into the unemployment heap.

Their total monthly wage bill does not exceed $3,000-$4,000, but the people dependent on their livelihood run into hundreds. The Sin Heng Chan has instead newly employed a foreigner to be a factory manager whose monthly salary exceeds the total earnings of these 35 workers.

It is such management attitude, completely without sympathy for the hardships and the plight of the workers, which call for legislation to fix minimum wages to prevent capitalist exploitation of cheap labour.

I know that when Malaysian Ministers go overseas to attract foreign investment, one of the temptations they offer is that in Malaysia there is very cheap and docile labour, where the capitalists are allowed free rein in their exploitation of labour.

Thus, in the May issue of the American magazine read by capitalists, Fortune, the Federal Industrial Development Authority (FIDA) took out a special advertisement, proclaiming that Malaysia has the highest per capita income in Asia after Japan and Singapore, but where the wage rates are among the lowest in the region.

This is the real reason why the government has up to now refused to introduce minim um wages, for it wants to allow the capitalists from foreign countries to come and exploit them. This FIDA advertisement sums up in a capsule the nature of economic development in the country, namely, that while every year, there is economic development, the Gross National Product increases and the national per capita income registers increase, the workers and the poor as a whole become poorer. The reason is because the fruits of economic development are enjoyed not by the poor, the working class, but by the rich and the monied interests. This is why in Malaysia as elsewhere, rising GNP and increasing national per capita income does not mean Poverty is steadily being eliminated, or that there is a fairer distribution of wealth and income in the country.

The reverse is in fact taking place. With a growing GNP, and increasing becoming richer while the poor has national per capita income, the rich are grown poorer.

The enactment of minimum legislation would be an instrument to ensure a fairer distribution of incomes from the fruits of economic development for the workers.

It is not widely known that when the Minister for Labour and Manpower, Tan Sri Manickavasagam, was elected President of the ILO in 1970, the ILO adopted a Convention, the ILO Convention 131 of 22nd June 1 1970, called the Minimum Wage Fixing Convention.

Malaysia has not ratified this ILO Convention on Minimum Wage Fixing, although we were President of the ILO.

It would be the height of international hypocrisy if we continue to flout this convention, and refuse to ratify it.

For this reason, I urge all Members of Parliament, regardless of party, to support the motion to give time for a private members’ bill to fix a basic minimum wage to be introduced in this House.

Speech by Ketua Pembangkang and DAP member of Parliament for Bandar Melaka, Lim Kit Siang, in the Dewan Rakyat on a motion to seek leave of the House to move a private member’s bill to fix basic living wage for workers on July 17, 1974