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malaysia solidarity visit

Malaysia is a semi-industrialised country that is seen as playing a leadership role in the region. While the country can boast impressive economic credentials and is seen favourably by the international investment community, the reality for workers is very different.

Malaysia became independent from the United Kingdom in 1957, and as the British had been fighting a communist insurgency the state inherited a whole series of security laws. These laws were used to neutralise workers organizations in the 1960’s and in to the early 1970’s.

Malaysia is composed of three main cultural groups, the native Malay, comprising around 50% of the population, the Chinese Malay, around 40%, and the Tamil Malay, around 6%. In 1969, a series of episodes of civil unrest swept the  country, often becoming racialised in a struggle
between the various communities.

In the aftermath of this unrest, there was a further strengthening of internal security legislation and stronger state intervention in the economy to favour the rise of a native Malay capitalist class. These events led to a situation where labour organising faced heavy repression as well as producing a working class divided along racial lines.

The work of AAWL in Malaysia began in the early 1980’s focusing on the organising of workers in the electronics industry. With the arrest of trade unionists under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in the second half of the 1980’s, AAWL then forged links with progressive human right organizations like SUARAM and began to campaign on the impact of repressive state laws on workers.

Earlier in this decade, AAWL had an ongoing campaign for the release of Tian Chua, a labour activist, who had been detained for two years
under the ISA. The campaign was successful and Tian Chua was released in 2003. The ISA allows people to be detained without trial for two years, upon which the Home Minister is able to reimpose another two years of detention as many times as the minister sees fit.

The current ‘war against terror’ has severely affected the political climate in Malaysia and SUARAM feels that it is now harder to campaign
for human rights, and against preventative detention laws, as people seem more prepared to scrifice civil liberties for the sake of ‘security’.

The ISA is now being used in conjunction with the Public Order and Preventative Ordinance (POPO), introduced in 1969 as a ‘temporary’
measure following the racial riots, to detain people without trial. Currently there are around 70 people who are being detained without trial, most of whom have been accused of being Islamic terrorists.

There is also an ongoing campaign against the number of people who‘die’ while in police custody and the total impunity that the police enjoy in these cases.

The economy of Malaysia, under the impact of globalisation, is attempting to move from an agricultural and simple assembly economic
base, to a more high technological based economy. One of the earliest industries was the palm oil industry that employed many Tamil Malays. The conditions in these plantations were often very primitive, both in the working conditions and the housing that workers were provided.

This has seen the establishment of a new organisation focussed on community development. This group has not only focussed on organising the palm oil workers to improve their wages and conditions, but has also campaigned around the issue of housing conditions.

While some successes have been achieved, the palm oil industry is shrinking (being moved to Indonesia) and most of the workers are being lured into the manufacturing and electronics sectors. As a result of this, the group has started doing much more work in this sector, while still maintaining its campaigns in housing and the community areas where the workers live. Its main demands focus on wages, length of workdays, overtime and retrenchment issues.

They try to work in coalition with other groups wherever possible, and one of the main stumbling blocks is the low rate of unionisation among Malaysian workers (around 8%) and the difficulty in forming new unions.

The government recently expelled hundreds of thousands of Indonesian migrant workers and as a result, Malaysia is currently suffering a big deficit in workers, especially in the construction industry. Due to this recent wave of expulsions, the Indonesian government is halting its workers from going to Malaysia. The Malaysian government is now looking at Cambodia and Vietnam as a source of cheap workers.

Even when migrant workers are allowed into Malaysia, the conditions they endure is a very big issue, but for many reasons, it has been hard
to organise this sector.

Syed Shahir, the recently elected progressive leader of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) would like to implement more international work and the MTUC is already working on a joint meeting between Malaysian and Thai auto car workers. Australian representatives may be asked to join in the near future.

Given Malaysia’s low unionisation rate, Syed is keen to learn from examples like Australia’s 1998 maritime dispute where there was coordination
between the community and workers.

The media in Malaysia is tightly regulated by the government, and in the last six years an independent news service, Malaysiakini, has grown as an internet based news service. Due to commercial reasons, the Malaysian government has been unable to control the flow of information over the internet.

Malaysiakini is produced daily in English, Malay and Chinese. It averages around 50,000 hits a day. It can only be accessed by people subscribing to it and paying a yearly fee. It is seen by many people as the most reliable, and free of government interference, of all the media in Malaysia.

This latest visit to Malaysia was very successful in strengthening AAWL’s work within the region, and a number of proposals for joint projects will be considered by AAWL.

Report by Piergiorgio Moro
South East Asia Project Coordinator
ASU - SACS Division Workplace union delegate
following a visit in November 2005.

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