The government is among the worst employers as far as its lower-rung contract workers are concerned.
The misery of over 200,000 contract cleaners and security guards at the premises of the two largest employers, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, is testimony to this.
A motorbike convoy by National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services (NUWHSAS) is currently making a four-day journey to Putrajaya from Penang. It aims to draw Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s attention to the plight of contract cleaners at government hospitals in the country.
The chief demand put forward by the union is one common to all contract workers in government departments: the government should absorb all contract workers into government service.
That is a tall order, given the universal thinking and neoliberal rule of a lean civil service and small government.
Adherence to this ideology through the contract system of the government has meant the breeding of poverty among a large segment of people. Under this system, a worker is hired on two to three-year contracts, which are renewable over and over by different contractors until the worker retires.
The length of service is never considered in determining wages or benefits: a worker employed for, say 20 years, will always remain on the minimum wage, which, in turn, will affect the worker’s Employees Provident Fund retirement savings and Socso (Social Security Organisation) contributions.
Ministers and the political elite always talk about helping people escape poverty, but they need to know that the government is achieving just the opposite with its contract system.
This is why the hospital workers union, the NUWHSAS, is asking for the abolition of the contract system. Besides, is it even legal to use the contract system for jobs that are permanent in nature, such as cleaning, gardening and providing security in hospitals, schools and other departments?
Not only are government contract workers oppressed by an unfair contract system but also by the contractors chosen by the government.
One complaint of the hospital contract workers is about alleged union busting by their employer, which is linked to Khazanah, a reputable government-linked investment company, whose research institute regularly highlights its findings on poverty and poverty indicators.
Union activities such as worksite committee meetings outside of working hours have been sabotaged by the management at hospitals. Active union leaders have been dropped when contracts are renewed.
The very existence of the union has been threatened pending the outcome of a court case after the contractors used a dirty old trick to transfer the contract to a different company, thus making the union powerless to represent its members.
Why deny union protection to these workers? What is the stand of the government?
Unions may be considered unnecessary if the government takes an interest in the welfare and rights of the workers. But the government has a way of remaining silent even when its handpicked contractors openly oppress the workers in government premises.
Even as this is written, there are at least 14 schools in Perak and Selangor (and doubtless many more in the country) where the contract workers have not been paid their wages for up to three months.
These workers have not filed complaints at the labour office for the not-imagined fear of losing their jobs. How will these workers feed their families and pay rent?
The district education offices and the state education offices have been made aware, and the Jaringan Pekerja Kontrak Kerajaan (Network of Government Contract Workers) has made complaints with the Ministry of Education.
Unfortunately, the government, which is responsible for the contract system and its failings, and is the paymaster, refuses to intervene. It says the workers are private employees, and complaints should be made at the labour office.
It is the workers’ hope that Khairy will meet them and hear their complaints when they arrive at the Ministry of Health in Putrajaya. They are asking for a change of bad policy, and they hope that is reason enough for a concerned government to act. – Think Left