Thursday, December 26, 2013

Malaysia needs a revived MTUC

Malaysia needs a revived MTUC

The newly-elected office-bearers of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) have brought hope to revive and rebrand the trade union movement in the country.
Like other civil society organizations, the MTUC has borne the brunt of a political system that had been driving full-speed towards authoritarian rule. With a political reawakening in Malaysia, supported strongly by the younger generation, MTUC delegates has acted in line with the aspirations of Malaysians in electing its leadership.
Led by its newly-elected secretary-general N. Gopalakishnam, there is a genuine hope that MTUC will play a more active role in restoring a sorely lacking balance within the Malaysian industrial relations system. There will undeniably be a lot of hard work ahead, and drastic changes should not be expected of the new leadership immediately, as they will be dealing with a system that needs an overhaul.

 A flawed system

The degeneration of civil society and the industrial relations system in Malaysia has happened over decades. The biggest contributor to this is the failed political system, especially during the Mahathir administration, where trade unionism, judiciary and any form of dissent were crippled.
The rights of workers and trade unions have been diluted over time, to facilitate the rule of an elite class in Malaysia. If we are looking at restoring the balance, with trade unions, employers, and the government having a genuine stake in determining employment policies, it will be foolhardy to believe that it can be achieved within the current framework.
At present, the system works against the common worker. As an example, it would take years before a worker who has been unfairly dismissed from employment can obtain redress through the existing arbitration mechanism. Employers are in a position to take advantage of this and the starting positions are by itself prejudicial to the interest of workers.
There are employers who have callously dismissed trade union leaders and interfered in union matters. Collective agreements are referred to the courts just so that the delay will frustrate trade unions and workers.
The entire system has to be challenged and changed, and this can only happen through sufficient pressure. Former MTUC president, Syed Shahir Syed Mohamud, was an advocate of such a change for more than two decades. A man before his time, there was insufficient impetus and support for him to see it through at that time. It is now appropriate for Malaysian workers and the MTUC to push for change.

Inclusion – rebranding of MTUC
Trade unionism in Malaysia has slipped out of the mainstream and the public eye. There was a time where trade union leaders had real clout and played an active and prominent role in shaping the thinking and direction of society. Statements by the likes of former trade union leaders such as Ahmad Nor, V. David, and A. H. Ponniah, among others, were taken seriously and sparked interest.
These days, there is almost a total shut-out from the media. While little can be expected of the mainstream media given their compromised position, the new leadership of MTUC will have to seek ways to tap on the social media to galvanise trade unionism in the country.
A wider outreach is necessary, with new ways and means used to attract workers into the ranks of trade unions and the trade union leadership. The world is experiencing a challenge against the political, economic and social status quo, and the MTUC ought to recognise this and ride on such a wave.
Research, grassroots organization and leadership development are pivotal areas which will also require focus. This will require a united MTUC, where leaders with different skills, strengths, bents and talents will need to be brought together.
Gopalakishnam has shown himself to possess the maturity, verve and drive to rise to the challenge. He will be able to tap on the dynamism of others elected with him such as Khalid Atan, J. Solomon, Abdullah Sani, Awang Ibrahim and Bruno Pereira, among others, to achieve this gargantuan task.

The apolitical distortion/diversion
Owing to the general political direction of the country, trade union leaders have been unfairly branded and stigmatised, with many paying a personal price for their convictions. Many have been loosely categorised as “subversive elements”, where any position taken against any government policy has drawn such opprobrium.
Any position taken in favour of social welfare policies will draw the labels of socialism or communism, with those deploying such tactics either not understanding what they mean or using them to conveniently avoid discussing the merits of the issue.
Trade unionists and the trade union movement have been pressured into holding themselves out to be apolitical. In Malaysia, apolitical usually means taking a position in favour of the Barisan Nasional government.
It must be recognised that labour and trade union issues are at the very heart of mainstream politics – one cannot be divorced from the other. Trade union leaders will need to take a position on them, regardless of whatever their individual political affiliations are.
What should be examined, debated and critiqued, are the merits of the position taken, and not who has made it; which party they belong to; or even whether they are trade unionists or not. The real interest should be to drive debate and action so that a position is arrived at which best suits the better interest of society.

An audacious hope
The challenges faced by the MTUC leadership are daunting, without a doubt. The leadership and the entire movement will have to challenge itself to look at how trade unionism in the country can be revived.
There is a need for a dynamic MTUC to safeguard the interest of workers in the country, and drive a balance where the common workers are now being increasingly disadvantaged. The newly-elected MTUC leadership does bring us hope that Malaysian workers will have a strong, relevant and dynamic trade union movement to rely on. - December 22, 2013.

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