Restoration Of Workers’s Political Rights

(Speech by the Parliamentary Leader, DAP Secretary-General and Member of Parliament for Petaling, Lim Kit Siang, in the Dewan Rakyat when introducing a Private Members Bill to amend the Trade Union Ordinance on 11th June 1979)

DAP calls for restoration of the rights of trade union officials to hold office in political parties

I rise to seek leave of the House to introduce a private member’s bill, and my motion reads:

‘’That this House pursuant to Standing Orders 49(1) grants leave to Lim Kit Siang to introduce a private member’s bill intituled Trade Union (Amendment) Act 1979 to amend the Trade Unions Ordinance 1959 to

  1. Allow an officer or employee of a political party to be a member of the executive of a trade union or any branch; and
  2. To provide that before the Registrar of Trade Unions exercises his powers to order trade unions to strike off member from the Union’s Register for taking part in illegal strikes, the Registrar shall comply with the rules of natural justice in first giving the union members to be affected an opportunity to be heard.”

Mr. Speaker, Sir, the first amendment seeks to amend Clause 27 of the Trade Union Ordinance 1959 which lists out five categories of persons who are disqualified from holding office in trade unions, by removing the disqualification attaching to party political officers
Clause 27 of the Trade Unions Ordinance reads:

“Any person shall not act as a member of the executive of a trade union or any branch thereof, or of any federation of trade unions, and shall be disqualified for election as such member, if:-

  1. He is not a citizen of the Federation;
  2. He is not engaged or employed in the trade, occupation or industry with which the trade union or federation is connected at the time of election and if he has not served a period of at least three years in such trade, occupation or industry;
  3. He has been a member of the executive of any trade union the registration of which has been cancelled or withdrawn under the provisions of paragraph (b) (iv) or (vi) of sub-section (1) of section 15 or under any law repealed by this Ordinance; or
  4. He us an officer or employee of a political party; or
  5. He has been convicted by any court of law of criminal breach of trust, extortion or intimidation, or of any offence which in the opinion of the Registrar renders him unfit to be an officer of a trade union.

Provided that the provisions of paragraph (a) and (b) of this sub-section shall not apply in the case of a union which in the opinion of the Minister is required by its objects to represent persons or the interests of persons who are not resident in the States of Malaya.”

It will be seen here that party political officers and employees are equated with convicted criminals and non-citizens as being equally disqualified from holding trade union office.

This provision is highly obnoxious, undemocratic and a violation of the fundamental right of freedom of association, for in banning trade union officials from holding key posts in political parties, the Government is denying the working class and its leaders in the trade unions the vigat to help shape political movements and in creating conditions more favourable to the workers.

This ban on trade union officials from holding political key posts reflects the anti-labour nature of the ruling National Front, and predecessor, the Alliance, for this amendment was made in 1969 as an emergency measure and later enacted in Parliament in 1971 after the Alliance suffered electoral reverse in the 1969 general elections.

By denying trade union officials the right to hold key political posts, the National Front Government is in fact denying worker their right, not only to play an active and leadership role in the politics of the country, but to participate in determining the nature of the society they live and work in, as it is determining the nature of the society they live and work in, as it is politics and political forces which make laws and create conditions directly affecting workers and their lives.

Only government and a political party which has no sympathy for the legitimate aspirations of workers, and have a innate distrust of the working class as a whole, could enact such an anti-labour law as banning trade union officials from holding political office. It is to be noted that to date, no Cabinet Minister in the history of Malaysia has had any trade union background or experience, and that the class interest represented in the ruling parties come from the moneyed, landed and capitalist section of society, but these are not sufficient justification for the enactment of laws to emasculate the political strength of workers.

There is no legal prohibition of committee members or other office bearers of Farmers Associations, for instance, or Employers’ Association, from holding political party posts , and I do not see why trade union officials should be picked out for discriminatory treatment!

This present proposal to amend the Trade Unions Ordinance 1959 to remove this disqualification attaching to trade union officials from holding office in the political parties will not only restore to workers and their leaders their fundamental right to help shape political movements and conditions more favourable and sympathetic to the working class, but even more important, end the discriminatory policies against trade union officials as compared to officials of other functional organisations, like Farmers’ Associations or Employer’s Associations.

The ban on employees of political parties from holding trade union office is also highly anti-labour, for this means that employees of political parties cannot band themselves into a trade union to protect their industrial right like salaries and working conditions – for how can they from a trade union, say of Employees of Political Parties Union, when none of them could hold trade union officer?

This shows how the bias and prejudices of the National Front Government has made it to pass laws which defy reason and logic justice and equity.

Curb on powers of Registrar of Trade Unions to deregister union member without inquiry

The MAS-AEU dispute has brought to light one undesirable aspect of the powers of the Registrar of Trade Unions, which must bear the blame for turning a simple employer-employee wage dispute into an international crisis, involving deregistration of a national union, the grounding of MAS services, the arrests of trade unionists under the Internal Security Act, the boycott of MAS international services and the tarnishing of Malaysia’s image in the world.

This is the Registrar of Trade Unions’ untrammelled powers to strike off union members from the union register for allegedly taking part in illegal industrial action, without having to comply with the rules of natural justice in giving those union members to be affected a chance to defend themselves before such drastic action is taken.

For instance, in the MAS-AEU dispute, when negotiations were resumed in January and both sides were making satisfactory progress at the negotiating table, the Registrar unilaterally ordered the Union to deregister 874 members for allegedly taking party in an illegal industrial action last December, not only derailing the MAS-AEU negotiations and forcing a series of confrontations and escalations; but even worse, acting solely on the MAS management report, without giving the 874 persons concerned a chance to defend themselves.

The MAS-AEU dispute is not the only case where the Registrar has exercised his powers to strike off union members from the Union register under Clause 26(3) of the Trade Union Ordinance. Many trade union leaders have complained to me that invariably, the Registrar the would get a report from the managements or employers on alleged illegal strike by union members, and without checking with the Union or the members concerned, the Registrar would order a deregistration.

This is gross abuse of power, and I am proposing an amendment to provide that before the Registrar could order the striking out of union members from a Union register, the Registrar must hold an inquiry and observe the rules of natural justice in giving the union members a chance to be heard and defend themselves. This is because union membership is a important right of freedom of association, which should not be removable at the complaint of a prejudiced party, like the Employer.

Although under the present provisions, those aggrieved by the Registrar’s order to be stuck off from union register could appeal to the Registrar himself, this is most unsatisfactory. There should be a provision for appeal against the Registrar’s action – but surely not to the Registrar himself!

I hope this very reasonable proposal would get the support of the House, as it would be a positive contribution industrial justice in Malaysia.