Labour unrest in Malaya, 1934-1941

The period 1934-41 witnessed a tremendous upsurge of labour unrest in Malaya. Beginning with the skilled artisans in 1934, large numbers of labourers in almost all industries throughout Malaya were swept into the vortex of industrial conflict in the following years. Both the Chinese and the Indian labourers had learnt to combine against their employers for higher wages and better working conditions, and the strike weapon was constantly used to enforce their demands. As a result the workers managed to rise from the depths of the Great Depression and secure hitherto unknown improvement in working conditions. This was accompanied by an enormous growth in the strength of organized labour.

In 1941 at least 178 workers’ associations were in existence in Malaya, and over two-thirds of these were formed during 1934-41. The illegal leftist General Labour Union also grew in strength in addition to a number of political associations which included labourers in their membership. The labour organizations had assumed the functions of trade unions to all intents and purposes although trade union status was not recognized by law until 1940-41.

The widespread collective bargainings in conjunction with the remarkable growth of labour unions suggest that the period under review was the formative years of trade unionism in Malaya. Labour at this stage had not yet entered into the field of legislation, but they came to acquire a wealth of experience in political conflict through industrial conflict and the anti-Japanese campaign.

Through these and the politico-ideological influence of China and India, the political consciousness of the labourers was enhanced. The main body of the thesis is devoted to a detailed treatment of the course of labour unrest in Malaya in 1934-41 in chronological order. In the conclusion an assessment is made of the achievements and shortcomings of labour.

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