Malaysia’s restrictive labour legislation is a relic of Britain’s colonial regime. It heavily limits collective bargaining and the right to strike. The legislation subjects the creation of new unions to strict state controls, for example, unions are forced to register at the Ministry of Human Resources. If registration is refused or delayed, there is no opportunity to lodge an appeal (ITUC 2010).
From the beginning the government used this mechanism to prevent the formation of unions in the electronics industry. To justify this, it claimed that it was in the national interest to maintain this pioneering industry, which would otherwise be threatened by trade unions pushing for increased wages leading to companies relocating (Bhopal and Rowley 2002, 1173).
In 1973, when the Electrical Industry Workers’ Union (EIWU) attempted to organise workers in the emergent electronics sector, the government banned it. The basis for this was the internationally unique distinction between an ‘electrical sector’ and an ‘electronics sector’. While the electrical sector encompassed finished products such as televisions and radios, the electronics
sector constitutes unfinished products – components like printed circuit boards (PCBs) and motherboards.
However, in many cases no clear distinction can be made, which is something that many companies take advantage of. For example, after the takeover of a Flextronics plant by Ericson the new management challenged the legitimacy of the EIWU representation by citing this distinction (Hürtgen et al. 2009, 213f).
Due to further trade union formation efforts, protests, strikes in Export Processing Zones and increasing international publicity in the 1980s, the government changed its policy to allow unions for the whole electronics sector. However, after heavy lobbying by multinational companies, the government limited trade union formation to in-house only (Bhopal and Rowley 2002, 1174f).
Where these in-house unions were formed successfully, one of the biggest challenges for the trade union was to organise young female workers: “Young women were reluctant to join the union because they were afraid that union engagement would lead to sanctions by the management. We tried to adapt to the women’s needs and made house-to house visits, arranged meetings in the afternoon and offered them training courses. That’s how we managed to attract women into the trade unions at that time” (Interview Periera 2010).
Nevertheless, only a few in-house unions were formed. In some cases companies pre-empted independent trade unions by founding their own in-house unions loyal to the management; others, such as the US chip manufacturer Harris, directly hindered union-forming efforts (IMF 1991).
In May 2009 after strong lobbying by trade unions and labour rights organisations, the government authorized the formation of industrial trade
unions in the electronics industry at a regional level – the Electronic Industry Employees Union (EIEU). Due to his experience in the long-lasting struggle for an in-house union at Harris, Bruno Periera – the representative of the newly formed EIEU in the Western region – stressed the importance of the hard-won industrial trade unions.
According to him, the EIEU has a decisive asset: “Even if the company changes its registration, the industrial union can still represent the workers” (Periera, according to Zubin 2010). As of August 2010, three of the four regional trade unions were registered and the Western union held a general meeting and had a complete representative council (Interview Periera 2010). The main challenge now is organising more members, for example in the Penang region, where Contract Manufacturers are entirely without trade unions as of August 2010 (Interview Xavier 2010).
The majority of workers, both migrant and local, are from rural areas. Therefore, when they enter the electronics workforce, it is usually their first contact with trade unions. A new female member of the EIEU said: “My Malaysian roommate
works as an organizer and now I also joined the union. Only after the set-up a union in my company I could leave it with a happy heart. But my colleagues are afraid. They told me, they will support me up from behind for now and if there
will be improvements, they will join the union. At the moment we have just two members” (Interview worker 2010).
It appears that most migrants are intentionally misinformed by agents in their home countries that they can not become members in Malaysian trade unions (for further detail see Section 7.7). Yulia Sugandi, who learnt about the union from her Malaysian co-worker and roommate, is a rare case (see Box 2) because
there is usually no communication between local and foreign workers (Interview Periera 2010).
Reaching out to migrants and gaining their confidence requires contact persons that are themselves migrants (see Box 4; Interview Periera 2010). Among the Indonesian workers, the biggest community of migrant workers in the electronics sector, quite a few senior workers have married locals and settled down in Malaysia.
The trade unionist Bruno Periera said: “They [the senior workers] give advice to young Indonesian labour migrants. They act like a big Indonesian Mama. We approach these senior Indonesian workers and they are more than willing to help because they feel that trade unions are the only forum to protect the workers. So far they help us on a purely voluntary basis because we have no funds. Only in their spare time they can go and talk to the young Indonesian migrant workers. That’s why the process is rather slow.”
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