Specch by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Kit Siang, in Dewan Rakyat on Friday, 29.11.1985 on the Labour Ministry 1986 budget estimates
How can the 50,000 retrenched workers get help from the Ministry of Labour when the Minister of Labour hilself had been under threat of ‘political retrenchment’ for 22 months?
The biggest problem facing workers today is the spectre of retrenchment, and this is also the biggest failure of the Labour Ministry.
On the 22nd Oct. 1985, the Deputy Minister of Labour, Datuk Zakaria Abdul Rahman, told the House that 7,831 workers were retrenched from various industries between 1982 and July this year.
This ridiculous figure was received with aghast, disbelief and concentration by the trade union movement and the workers, for it showed that the Labour Ministry was not only trying to minimise the gravity of the problem of retrenchment, but is not serious and sensitive to the hardships mass retrenchements is causing to the lives of the workers.
By most estimates, the conservative figure of retrenchments for the period mentioned by Datuk Zakaria would be in excess of 50,000 workers retrenched, with the electronics industry with more than 10,000 retrenchments; about 16,000 rubber estate workers being retrenched; over 8,000 in textile industry; over 7,000 workers in tin mining industry (not to mention the 5,000 workers who lost their jobs with the closure of tin mines since the collapse of the tin market on 24th October); over 6,000 retrenchments in construction industry and over 4,000 in the timber industry.
The trade unions and workers had bitterly complained that the Ministry of Labour had shown no serious concern about their plight, apart from empty Ministerial pronouncements.
In a way, how can the 50,000 retrenched workers, and the tens of thousands who would be retrenched in the coming months, expect real help from the Ministry of Labour when the Minister of Labour himself, Datuk Mak Hon Kam, had been under the threat of ‘political retrenchment’ for the last 22 months, and is even now not sure for now many days more he would stay on as Minister of Labour?
The MCA power struggle is a real tragedy of the workers, for the workers are the real casualties as it rendered the Minister of Labour unable to provide the leadership and direction sorely needed at a time when the workers are facing a crisis of retrenchments. Instead, Datuk Mak was too busy trying to save his own political skin. Things would not have been so bad if the leaders of the other contending MCA factions had the concern of the workers at heart, and put pressure on the Labour Ministry to discharge his duty to the workers. But then, they are the spokesmen of high finance, business and monied inetrest, and have no concern for the workers – and had probably themselves been retrenching workers!
The DAP calls on the Prime Minister to set up a Cabinet Committee on retrenchments to give the problem the seriousness it warrants, especially in the light of more massive retrenchments to come, the return of some 80,000 expatriate Malaysian workers from Singapore and other foreign countries, and the presence of some 800,000 to a million illegal foreign nationals, in particular the illegal Indonesian immigrants.
Many employers have been taking advantage of the economic recession to retrench older workers who draw higher salaries, ignoring the ‘last in, first out’ principle in retrenchments.
The Cabinet Committee on Retrenchments should put a stop to unfair labour practices of unscrupulous industries which are using the economic recession to cut labour costs, in disregard of their responsibilities to the welfare of the workers who had in the past brought in great profit gains for the employers.
The Cabinet Committee on Retrenchment, through labour regulations, whould draw up new guidelines to minimise the abuses and hardships of mass retrenchments, as
- Requiring three-month early warning notice before retrenchment is served on a worker;
- to find alternative jobs for the workers, in co-operation with the Ministry of Labour;
- Spread the period of termination over a longer period; and
- Fix criteria for selecting workers for retrenchment with staff representatives or the trade union concerned.
I am indeed shocked during the question time in the current Parliamentary meeting when the Deputy Labour Minister, Datuk William Lye, said there were no abuses or exploitation of contract labour system. It makes me wonder whether he understands the labour conditions in the country at all.
Only in September, the Timber Employees’ Union delegates’ conference called on the government to abolish the contract system of hiring timber workers. As the Union Secretary-General, Mihat Sulaiman, rightly pointed out, contract labourers did not enjoy the benefits provided under the Employment Act, as they do not have contracts of service. As a result, they are not entitled to sick leave, annual leave, public holidays and maternity leave, they are also not covered by Socso nor do the employees contribute to the EPF on their behalf. They are also dismissed whenever the employer chooses without any termination benefits.
I had in this House in the seventies spoken many times on the evils and abuses of the contract labour system. As a result, in 1976, the Employment Act was amended to confer power on the Minister to prohibit by order the employment of contract labour in any occupation in any agricultural or industrial undertaking, construction work, statutory body, local government authority, trade, business or place of work. When such an order is made by the Minister, all persons specified in the order would become employers and employees for the purposes of the Employment Ordinance and other written law.
Unfortunately, although the evils and abuses of contract labour system had not been mitigated, especially in estate and construction sites, the Labour Minister had never issued a single order to protect the contract workers from exploitation of the system. And now the Deputy Labour Minister had the temerity to stand up in this House to declare that there are no abuses and exploitation of the contract labour system. He is clearly not fit to be Deputy Labour Minister.
I want to draw his attention as well as the Labour Ministry to the gross abuse of contract workers at the Batu Arang Division of Sungai Tinggi Estate in Rawang, which is owned by Socfin. The strike by 142 workers at the estate has entered into its 60th day, since Oct. 1, 1985.
The 142 workers had been working on the estate for years, some as far back as 1961. In 1966, when the estate was ready for tapping, the workers were made contract workers to three contractors, Cyril Chin, an MCA JP; C.C.Liong and P. Ramasamy, another MIC stalwart. And for 19 years, these estate workers had been treated as contract workers – and this must rank as a record where contract workers lasted 19 years, when the system is meant to deal with seasonal or specific jobs.
The workers went to strike on Oct. 1 to protest against management and contractor abuses and their long-standing grievances.
The workers do not have housing allowance, no overtime pay, no distance allowance, complain that they are cheated on the computation of poundage to calculate the wages; that they are cheated on scrap rubber; no maternity allowance; no medical facilities; EPF contributions of workers not remitted to EPF; no Socso coverage; removal of crèche facilities without notice, and a whole host of complaints about unfair management practices.
I am shocked to receive complaints that when the local NUPW representatives complained to the Rawang Labour Office about the management practices, they are told to report to the NUPW head office; and when workers themselves went to the Rawang Labour Office, they are scolded by the labout officers.
If the Ministry of Labour is not prepared or unable to help the contract labourers at Batu Arang Division at Sungai Tinggi Estate, Rawang, and act as if they are representatives of the management, the Ministry of Labour should change its name to Ministry for Employers.