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Freedom of association is critical for unions


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The Association for Welfare Community and Dialogue (Acid) is concerned that there has been uneasiness among private sector unionists with regard to freedom of association, which is perceived to create chaos of multiplicity of unions in the workplace.

It is understandable that unions and employers, for different reasons, oppose such freedom of association that could split the union movement within a workplace or create disruptions that hinder the smooth operations of organisations due to competing forces.

The fundamental issue facing workers today is not merely about the potential split among unions due to the micro aspects of unionism in the workplace.

It has a broader dimension – the lack of union representation in the wider workforce in the country. This includes marginalised workers in the informal sector.

According to Article 5 of International Labour Organization Convention 87 on the freedom of association, workers and employers’ organisations shall have the right to establish and join federations – and any such organisation, federation, or confederation shall have the right to affiliate with international organisations of workers and employers.

Denying the right of workers to join the entities that would benefit them is unjust. The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) should in fact encourage greater representation of workers through the eyes of solidarity and create a solidarity movement instead of holding on to a model that has not created enough representation.

The size of the workforce in informal employment is estimated to be around 16.8% of total employment figures, which stood at 2.5 million according to a study in 2019.

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This clearly reveals that union representation of a wider and more complex workforce is critical as Malaysia endeavours to become a developed country.

With the advent of various technological innovations that determine the future of work, a broader political and socioeconomic voice of the union movement has become imperative.

As seen today, the split among unions within umbrella bodies such as the MTUC due to internal power struggles has weakened its power and credibility – and this requires soul-searching among unionists.

According to 2021 data, the union membership rate of public sector workers was at 33.9% and continued to be over five times higher than the rate of private sector workers, of whom only 6.1% are unionised.

This is due to factors related to the Trade Unions Act that do not allow general unions for workers, besides the uphill battle in forming unions at the workplace.

The MTUC leadership’s continued ambiguous behaviour towards the freedom of association, fearing a split of unions and losing control, has impeded the influence of unions in building a strong solidarity movement that could influence the political and economic system in the country.

For the growth of the country’s labour movement in terms of membership and political influence, the MTUC has to work on building solidarity among trade unions by encouraging alternatives set up to cater to informal and gig workers.

The other alternative would be to allow workers to apply for individual union membership without needing to apply through the micro-level at the workplace. This would strengthen the trade union movement in terms of numbers and bargaining power within the national socioeconomic structure.

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It is absurd to have a multiplicity of unions in a single workplace, but it is rational to have strong, credible national unions that are able to broaden their membership and decentralise their functions in all states.

Hopefully, a proper understanding of what constitutes freedom of association in the union movement is cultivated instead of narrowing it down to a problem of multiple unions in a single workplace.

Freedom of association is critical for a broader representation of workers. Hopefully, the current amendments to the Trade Unions Act would lay the foundation for a broader representation of workers.

It should only accept a single union at a workplace but open up to alternative umbrella unions at the national and state level based on the complexity of the workforce, which could help broaden the memberships of unions and create a solidarity movement that could inspire change in the country. – Malaysiakini

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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