On 11 January the trade union movement lost a dedicated grassroots-oriented leader, Balakrishnan Nadeson.
He succumbed to what was stated as “acute coronary syndrome”. He was 73.
I had known Bala since 1978, when he was employed with a company in the Prai industrial zone. This was where he began his trade union activism. He was subsequently elected to the executive council of the Penang and Province Wellesley Textile and Garment Workers Union.
Bala was robust, proactive and outspoken not only when dealing with the company but also in his capacity as a member of the union’s executive council. He was one who called a spade a spade and never accepted any shades in between.
Bala was a pugilist ever prepared to put on his gloves when challenged. Though a flyweight in build, he had the heart and soul of a heavyweight in his defence of workers’ rights.
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Then the inevitable happened — Bala was dismissed by the company on charges that, until today I believe, were made in bad faith.
His dismissal was escalated to the Industrial Court, which rightly held that the dismissal was without just cause or excuse.
During the interim period, Bala joined Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and, by extension, the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), where he continued his activism until he returned to his roots – the trade union movement.
In 1988 he joined the Electrical Industrial Workers Union (ElWU) as its industrial relations officer.
From then on, for over three decades, Bala continued where he left off – working for the emancipation of the working class. He was involved with the Penang division of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (Penang MTUC) from 1988, serving as its assistant secretary from 1991 for a few terms.
Until his declining health made it impossible, he kept attending all division committee meetings and activities. That was a distinctive trait of his: come hell or high water, he never ever neglected his obligations.
A lesser known fact is that Bala is the only Malaysian trade unionist to have attended and obtained accreditation from Aston University in Birmingham, England in occupational safety and health. In fact, workers’ safety and health was an issue close to his heart.
The International Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April is a day of remembrance for workers killed, disabled or injured at work. In 1992 the Penang MTUC observed this day at a workers’ monument built in honour of the workers who died in the construction of the Penang Bridge, near the Prai toll plaza. We were the first to commemorate this day in Asia.
The credit goes to Bala! He even brought, all the way from England, a banner bearing the slogan “Mourn for the dead and fight for the living” – a banner the Penang MTUC has never failed to put up at every lnternational Workers’ Memorial Day since 1992.
He was also a firm believer in empowering the grassroots through education. The beneficiaries ought to number in the thousands.
Bala was a rare breed – a campaigner for workers’ rights, a proponent of workers’ occupational safety and health, for environmentalism, consumer rights and the civil society movement.
His integrity was unquestionable and his commitment to the workers’ cause unwavering.
To his family, l, on behalf of the workers, say thank you – thank you for gifting Bala to the people’s struggle. We are etemally indebted to you for giving him the space and liberty in his endeavours to bring forth meaningful transformation of the plight of the workers. With your blessing, he fought a truly remarkable fight.
Bala will walk among the righteous in the abode of God almighty. Rest in eternal bliss, my beloved comrade!
K Veeriah is secretary of the Penang division of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress