Enterprise Unions: Panacea for Industrial Harmony in Malaysia?

By Peter Wad

As industrialization has been conceived by the Malaysian government as a strategic means for accomplishing the development policy of national stability and unity, poverty eradication, ethno-economic restructuring and finally for achieving the status of a developed country by the year 2020, industrial peace has been accorded a high priority. During the 1980s and 1990s industrial strife declined to very low levels, after an elaborate system for conciliation and arbitration had been put in place in the 1960s. But industrial peace did not equate with industrial harmony and productive behaviour. Adopting a policy of in-house unionism in the early 1980s, the Malaysian government tried out a new mechanism for securing cooperation and consensus at the enterprise level, focusing on the new Malay workforce in the modern sectors and bypassing the traditional trade unions, structured on industrial, occupational and trade boundaries.

Based on three case stories from the metal industry, this article demonstrates that enterprise unions are not by nature docile, management controlled trade unions in a Malaysian context. A certain dynamic of enterprise industrial relations is delineated and explained by union democracy and independence on the one hand and employers’ policies and practices in terms of personnel and industrial relations management on the other. The labour laws and the authorities provide a framework and mechanisms for conflict interpretation and resolution, but a statist explanation of Malaysian industrial relations at the enterprise level is insufficient. The management-labour relationship has to be taken to the forefront of the analysis, which falsifies some of the myths surrounding enterprise unions in Malaysia.

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Source : Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 12 . 97