The MAS-AEU industrial confrontation

(Speech by the Parliamentary Leader, DAP Secretary-General and Member of Parliament for Petaling, Lim Kit Siang, in the Dewan Rakyat on the Prime Minister’s motion on March 20, 1979)

The prolonged and unresolved dispute between Malaysian Airlines System (MAS) and the Airlines Employees’ Union (AEU) together with the events damage to Malaysia’s economy and accompanying it, have caused great international image.

It has caused, and is still causing, disruption and suspension of international air services of MAS entailing multi-million dollar financial losses to both MAS and Malaysia.

It has again exposed Malaysia as a country which has no respect for human rights and the fundamental liberties of its citizens, by extending government encroachments against human rights and fundamental liberties into the workers’ arena, as in the use of detention without trial laws of the Internal Security Act against trade union leaders and activists for their trade union activities.

It has also threatened to put Malaysia in the centre of an international industrial confrontation, involving not only the air services but also shipping and other transportation, which would cause irreparable damage to Malaysia’s open economy.

It is the duty of Parliament to find out why a simple employer-employee dispute between the MAS and AEU involving a new collective agreement had assumed such a proportion, and to help seek ways to resolve the MAS-AEU dispute, as the relevant Government Ministries and officials responsible for solving such a dispute had in fact magnified it into a national and international crisis.

The Government’s motion, presented by the Prime Minister, should have been a contribution in this direction, in breaking new paths to resolve the MAS-AEU impasse. I am very disappointed that the Prime Minister’s motion does not do this.

The Prime Minister’s motion reads:

“Bahawa Dewan ini-

(i) mengambil perhatian berat di atas perkembangan yang telah berlaku akibat pertikaian Syarikat Penerbangan Malaysia (Malaysian Airline System – MAS) dengan Kesatuan Pekerja Penerbangan (Airline Employees Union – AEU);

(ii) memandang berat di atas tindakan kesatuan-kesatuan sekerja dan gabungan-gabungan kesatuan sekerja luar negeri dan antarabangsa yang telah campurtangan dalam pertikaian domestic antara MAS-AEU;

(iii) menyokong segala tindakan Kerajaan dalam usaha untuk memelihara dan memajukan MAS sebagai sebuah perkhidmatan udara nasional termasuk mengujudkan suasana yang sesuai bagi membolehkan pihak pekerja dan pihak pengurusan MAS menyambung semula perundingan perjanjian bersama mereka;

(iv) menyesali serta mengecam segala campurtangan pihak kesatuan sekerja luar negeri dan antarabangsa di dalam urusan dalam negara Malaysia.”

This motion completely misses the central point of how and why a simple employer-employee dispute in MAS has escalated into a national and international crisis. It is irrelevant and a red herring because it projects the untrue picture that the whole problem of the MAS-AEU dispute is because of the so-called interference by foreign and international union organisations. No fair-minded person could deny that the foreign and international union organisations got involved in point of time well after the MAS-AEU dispute had escalated into a full-scale confrontation, with the de-registration of 874 AEU members, the attempt to deregister the Union, the ban on negotiations, mass suspensions and dismissals and the detention of AEU officials and activities under the Internal Security Act.

What then is the cause of the escalation of a simple MAS wage dispute into a national and international crisis? If there is a national opinion poll to find out what the public thinks is the most important cause of such escalation, it is the persistent mishandling and mismanagement of the dispute by the Minister of Labour and his officials.

Yet this motion, as it stands, unbelievably asks Parliament to give approval and endorsement for such government mishandling and mismanagement of the dispute!

A newspaper editorial had said that “the MAS dispute is a classic example of how not to conduct good industrial relations.” It is also a classic example of failure of crisis management by the Ministry of Labour, in superadding on a MAS crisis a larger international crisis!

I do not propose to discuss increases, although they clearly have strong grounds to ask for upward salary revision, bearing in mind for instance that the basic salary for MAS’ lowest paid worker is only $154, which is much lower than the $195 bottom scale for Government workers. These would be more properly dealt with either in negotiations or arbitration. I propose to deal with the manner and style of the Labour Ministry’s intervention in the dispute,. for it is this intervention, together with possible collusion with MAS management, which must bear responsibility for the MAS crisis.

The decision of the Registrar of Trade Unions on January 8 to deregister 874 AEU members stands as the single most important cause which derailed the MAS-AEU dispute from the track of negotiations and peaceful settlement and precipitated the chain reaction of confrontation and escalation which must have been for seen by any person experienced in industrial conciliation or crisis management.

The MAS and the AEU had returned to the negotiating table for a second round of talks, having met on 3rd, 4th and 5th January; and had fixed for more meetings on 9th, 10th and 11th January. Out of the blue, came the Registrar’s directive to deregister 874 AEU members which completely sabotaged the talks.

The Minister of Labour, Richard Ho, had sought to defend the Registrar’s January 8 action. For instance, the Minister, in a written answer to my question yesterday on the MAS-AEU dispute, said: “The Registrar of Trade Unions requested the AEU to remove the names of 874 of its members from its membership register because he was satisfied that they had taken illegal industrial action in contravention of the law. He was therefore acting correctly and properly when. he did so on the 8th of January, 1979.”

The Registrar of Trade Union’s January 8 directive must be faulted on the two grounds of dubious legality and as a gross misjudgement which precipitated a chain of escalation and confrontation with national and international repercussions.

The Registrar’s action is of dubious legality because in deregistering the 874 AEU members of their right to union membership, which is a deprivation of their fundamental liberty of association and to join unions, the Registrar acted against the rules of natural justice in not giving the workers affected the opportunity to defend themselves as to whether there had been “illegal industrial action from December 5 – 13” and whether they had been involved. On the contrary, the Registrar exhibited considerable bias in relying solely on the one-sided report of the MAS management, which submitted a list of names which was accepted without reservation by the Registrar, which according to one report, included those on annual leave, maternity leave, sick leave, even those who had worked overtime and even one dead person.

The dubious legality of the Registrar’s action further compounds the gross misjudgment of the decision. I want to ask the Registrar of Trade Unions and the Minister of Labour whether they were aware and conscious that in ordering the deregistration of 874 AEU members under such circumstances of dubious legality and timing, they could jeopardise the on-going negotiations between MAS and AEU at that time, and lead to quick escalation of the conflict overspilling into new dimensions? If the Registrar of Trade Unions and the Minister of Labour were conscious of these consequences, then I would want to know why they disregarded them. If they were not aware or conscious of these consequences, then they are not fit to occupy their important offices.

The role of the Ministry of Labour in any industrial dispute is to seek to conciliate and mediate, to bring the disputing parties to the negotiating table and create conditions for a negotiated settlement, and wherever necessary to create a ‘cooling-off period’ for feelings to subside and prevent avoidable industrial confrontation.

But what the Ministry of Labour did on January 8 was the exact opposite. Instead of dampening and putting out industrial fires, the Ministry of Labour started an inferno.

Did the Minister of Labour envisage and anticipate what type of reaction the Registrar’s directive would have on the AEU, its officials and members? Clearly the natural reaction would be that the Ministry of Labour, possibly in collusion with the MAS management as both are part of the same government, were teaming up to undermine and even wreck the union, by deregistering its members. For without its members, a Union’s very existence and survival is threatened, making wage claims and negotiations completely secondary and unimportant. The art of crisis management is not to force anyone of the disputing parties over the brink into the precipice, but this was exactly what the Ministry of Labour did on January 8 with the Registrar’s directive.

Was it any wonder and surprise that the Registrar’s unjustified, arbitrary and ill-considered decision of January 8 started off a chain of events which appeared like the unfolding of a Greek tragedy; the break-off of negotiations, the unrest in MAS, the disruption of MAS services, the show-cause notice to the AEU on deregistration, the Prohibition Order, the detention of AEU unionists under the ISA extending to escalation on an international scale?

This chain series of provocation, confrontation and escalation could have still been prevented by skilful and experienced handling by the relevant Minister concerned. For instance, had the ultimate stage been reached by January 27 whereby the Registrar of Trade Unions had no choice but to issue a show-cause notice why the AEU should not be deregistered?

Couldn’t the Minister of Labour invoke instead Clause 34 of the Industrial Relations Act and appoint a Board of Inquiry to investigate into the MAS-AEU dispute?

Can the Minister of Labour explain why he did not invoke Clause 34 of the IRA unless he was personally influenced by the tension of confrontation and escalation and wanted to demonstrate his Ministerial power and teach the AEU a lesson?

Again, what was the necessity for the issue of the Ministerial Prohibition Order accompanying the Registrar’s Show Cause Order prohibiting the AEU from all union activities except to reply to the ‘show cause’ notice?

We have later the ridiculous spectacle of the Minister lamely saying that the AEU could write to him to apply for variation of the Prohibition Order to allow them to negotiate with the MAS, when his Ministerial Prohibition Order on all AEU activities, apart from showing cause, was total – and which includes writing to the Minister to vary the Order. The Minister now prides on being a stickler to legality. But to get himself out of a corner which he had put himself in, he is prepared to ask the Union to break legal ‘rules!

Again, what was the justification for the detention of the AEU officials and activists under the Internal Security Act? On the day of their arrest, the authorities said that they were being detained for suspected tampering with the aircrafts. On that day, all MAS planes were also grounded.

The government’s case for their arrests falls to the ground when the Internal Security Act, which allows detention without trials, is used. For if the AEU unionists and activists are arrested because of tampering with the aircrafts, then they should be arrested under the ordinary laws of the land and charged in court. The resumption of MAS flights after a two-day suspension shows how frail are the allegations of tampering, as also the failure of the government to charge the AEU detainees after over a month of detention.

The MAS-AEU dispute, therefore, is a sorry tale of mishandling and mismanagement by the Ministry of Labour and other relevant authorities. A simple employer-employee dispute should never have been allowed to escalate into an international crisis, as evidenced by the 10-day stranding of the MAS DC-10 in Sydney, Australia. Although the DC-10 has returned from Sydney, the situation still holds the potential for an international industrial confrontation not only in civil aviation, but also in other transportation and communications fields, which would be highly inimical to Malaysian economic interest and greatly damage Malaysia’s investment image and climate.

The government motion wants Parliament to give the stamp of approval for this long list of government mishandling and mismanagement of the MAS-AEU dispute, when it is precisely this mishandling and mismanagement which created this present international crisis. The government motion also wants Parliament to approve the use of the Internal Security Act against unionists for their union activities. I don’t see how Parliament could do this. In fact, Parliament should deplore the mishandling and mismanagement of the dispute, call for the resignation of the Minister of Labour, and also deplore the use of ISA against trade unionists and the International Transport Workers. Federation Asian Representative, Donald Uren.

The government motion, in emphasising on ‘interference by foreign and international unions in the domestic affairs of Malaysia’ has tried to divert attention from the basis causes and steps necessary to resolve the MAS-AEU dispute. The government leaders who find their strong-armed tactics to crush the AEU and airport workers highlighted by the protest actions of Australian airport workers are understandably inflamed. They are entitled to denounce such foreign actions. But to ask Parliament to denounce such an action is another proposition altogether.

As Parliamentarians, we must no allow emotions to cloud our judgement and reason. While it is an acceptable general principle that nobody wants anybody to interfere with their domestic affairs, we must accept too that there are certain issues and principles which transcends national barriers, issues like respect for human rights, respect for human dignity and worth.

Over violation of some of these fundamental rights, Malaysia had in the past taken actions, not only in speeches in the United Nations, but also positive action, as breaking off diplomatic relations and boycotting trade with South Africa in protest against its apartheid policies. Malaysia did this in protest against the laws of South Africa and in interference with the domestic policies of South Africa, and rightly so, because there are certain rights which every human being is entitled to, not because he is a citizen of any country, but simply because of his human personality, which every other human being in any other country has the right to protest in the event of violation. Dare any Barisan Nasional member stand up and say that our policies and actions vis-a-vis South Africa is wrong and should be deplored because it is an interference with the domestic policies of South Africa?

Or take the case of Israel, where Malaysia joined in international protest action against the denial of the right of self-determination by the Palestinians in their homeland. Dare any Barisan Nasional MP stand up and say that our policies and actions in support of the Palestinians is wrong and is an interference with the domestic affairs of Israel?

We in the DAP are not prepared to say that Malaysians should be forfeited the right, to including the right of action, to protest against gross violation of human rights in any part of the world, for this is what part (iv) of this motion tantamount to.

By deploring the action of the Australian airport workers in protest against the detention of AEU officials for union activities, as an interference in the domestic affairs, are we not at the same time deploring our action vis-a-vis South Africa and Israel too, unless we want to have double standards in our national and international life?

The Government therefore should not put Parliament in such a position by proposing this motion in the shape of Paragraph 4, and in any event, they do not materially affect the nub of the problem of the MAS-AEU dispute.

I know what I have said would be distorted and perverted and there would be those unprincipled and unscrupulous enough to try to say that I am not nationalistic. Let me say that a true nationalist is not a person who would do foolish things exposing the country to international ridicule and getting angry at the world, but one who would remove the of such ridicule. We in the DAP lose to nobody in this House in oue preparedness to lay down our lives in the defence of our country, so let no one bark up the wrong tree in the course of this debate.

This motion, if passed, will do no credit to Malaysia’s image, nor help in solving the MAS-AEU dispute.

Parliament should concern itself with the guidelines which can form a basis for the immediate resolution of the dispute.

It is in this light that I propose an amendment to the Prime Minister’s motion, and which reads:

“DELETE sub-paragraphs (ii), (iii) or (iv) and SUBSTITUTE instead:

“(ii) Resolves that the following guidelines be accepted as a basis for the immediate resolution of the MAS-AEU dispute by all parties concerned:

(a) Full restoration of the rights of the AEU to operate as a Union to represent the interests of its members;

(b) Immediate release of AEU officials and members detained under the Internal Security Act, and the ITWF Asian Representative, Donald Uren;

(c)Reinstatement of all MAS employees suspended or dismissed during the MAS-AEU dispute;

(d) Appointment of a Board of Inquiry under Clause 34 of the Industrial Relations Act under a Chairman respected by both parties to investigate into the MAS-AEU dispute, and to report to Government and Parliament on recommendations which would not only restore industrial peace and harmony in the MAS, but also lead to greater efficiency, productivity and profitability in the national airline.”