Labour Law Reform Coalition (LLRC) is taking note of the discontent and anxiety among some trade unions on the government’s intention to implement freedom of association at workplaces, particularly allowing more than one union at workplace.
The Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill 2022 will be tabled for the second reading in Parliament in July 2022. The proposed deletion of Section 12(2), if passed in Parliament, would remove the director general’s power [to refuse] to register a trade union if there is in existence a trade union and he or she is satisfied that it is not in the interest of the workers [that there be another trade union].
In a nutshell, if it was implemented, workers at any workplace could freely establish and join trade unions of their choice – a key principle of the International Labour Organization Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise.
Historically, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) had already called on the government to ratify ILO Convention 87 in 1971 and campaigned relentlessly for implementation of freedom of association. The LLRC’s symposium on freedom of association in September 2019 also passed a resolution to call for ratification of Convention 87.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), of which MTUC is an affiliate, has been consistently urging the Malaysian government to ratify Convention 87. Article 10(1)(c) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia also guarantees every citizen the right to form associations.
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The current Trade Union Act 1959 severely restricts workers’ right to join unions of their choice. This has resulted in extremely low unionisation and collective bargaining coverage in Malaysia. Less than 2% are covered by collective agreements. The overall proposed amendments actually provide a great opportunity to organise the unrepresented 98% of workers.
However, the restrictive Trade Union Act and the oppression of the labour movement caused distrust between the unions and the government. Every new move to amend the Trade Union Act 1959 will be seen as an attempt to further weaken or destroy trade unions. That’s why many unions see that the implementation of freedom of association will destroy unions and erode the unity and solidarity of workers.
The LLRC urges the Ministry of Human Resources to hold an immediate dialogue with the trade union community before the second reading of Trade Union Bill 2022 to rebuild trust between the unions and the government. A deliberative democratic process should be adopted to make trade unions’ voices heard by the government.
We sincerely hope that an amicable solution could be reached, and trade unions remain united for a progressive future envisioned by far-sighted MTUC leaders in the 1970s.
N Gopal Kishnam is chairperson of the Labour Law Reform Coalition