The Multinational Monitor


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Malaysia's Workers

Jolting the Electronics Industry

by Kimori Mai

PENANG, MALAYSIA--Almost 90 percent of the 85,000 electronics workers in Malaysia's more than 100 electronics companies are female. Since 1972, they have worked to generate huge profits for the foreign multinationals which flocked to Malaysia because of low wages, tax exemptions, favorable utilities rates and the ban on unions.

The Malaysian electronics industry, which began in 1972 in Penang Island's Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone, has developed into one of the central pillars of the Malaysian economy, with plants throughout Penang, Johore and Selangor. In 1988, electronic goods exports amounted to U.S. $2.59 billion, making up 34 percent of Malaysia's manufacturing exports and 15 percent of its total exports. Malaysia has become the world's fourth largest electronics parts exporter, following the United States, Japan and South Korea.

While the electronics companies, led by U.S. multinationals like Motorola, enjoy preferential status, Malaysian workers suffer under harsh working conditions. They are paid poor wages, ranging from about M$5 to M$7 a day. They work in three shifts and stare into microscopes eight hours a day, often suffering severe eye strain. Their working and social life is regulated by company executives who are exclusively men. Although there are numerous complaints of sexual harassment, the workers have little recourse because until very recently the government had banned all types of trade unions in the Free Trade Zones where most of the electronics companies are located.

Workers' hopes for change were raised a year ago, however, when, in response to international and domestic pressure, Labor Minister Lee Kim Sai announced on September 22, 1988, that unionization would be permitted in the electronics industry. His announcement puzzled workers in the industry who welcomed the opportunity and began efforts to form a national union.

Electronics workers under the leadership of G. Rajasegaran, secretary general of the Malaysia Metal Workers' Union as well as of the Malaysian Council of the International Metalworking Industry Federation, quickly set up a pro tem committee to form the National Electronics Industry Workers' Union (NEW). Malaysian law requires workers to establish such a group when they are trying to form a union.

According to international observers, there was a very clear explanation for the government's about-face. Labor unions in the United States had persuaded the U.S. government to consider withdrawing the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) status enjoyed by Malaysia because of what they claimed were violations of workers' rights and inhumane treatment of opposition politicians and social activists. Lee Kim Sai apparently was hoping that by allowing unionization, Malaysia would be able to make enough cosmetic changes to stem the concern of U.S. unions before the public GSP hearing which was scheduled to address the accusation.

The day after the government's announcement, however, the Malaysian-American Electronics Industry Association (MAEI) announced its opposition to the move. Along with some of the Japanese electronics giants, the MAEI began exerting pressure on the Malaysian government to block the formation of the national union. The industry also took several different actions to persuade the workers not to organize. The executives of Motorola, Matsushita and other companies called meetings with their employees where they announced that they strongly opposed NEW, and threatened to move their operations to Thailand and China. They also threatened the workers with dismissal if they visited MTUC offices in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. They harassed the workers by employing security guards to follow them from the plants to their homes. They banned pro-NEW pamphlets from offices and plant floors. Some worker leaders were blacklisted and transferred; others were reassigned to different plant sections. Hitachi offered cash bonuses to any worker in its plant in Penang who wrote a letter to the Labor Minister rejecting NEW. Robert Bosch Co., the German electronics company, also in Penang, informed its workers that they would be dismissed if they helped to organize a national union.

Under strong pressure from these corporations, the Malaysian government changed its position and announced that it would allow only in-house unions in the electronics industry. Without government support and with active and hostile opposition from the companies, efforts to build a national union to protect workers in the electronics plants are achieving little success.

Even the in-house unions which the government has allowed face opposition from the industry. The management at what was formerly RCA Electronics Pte. Ltd., now called Harris Corporation (RCA and Harris merged in July, 1989), blocked every attempt the workers made to form a pro tem committee. RCA management continues to use intimidation and other scare tactics to obstruct organizing. There is still no formal union and the management has refused to recognize the pro tem committee that the workers have elected.

In spite of the militant anti-union behavior on the part of the electronics industry, G. Rajasegaran said in July that the workers have not given up on the idea of a national union. MTUC has begun a concerted campaign to educate and organize the workers to prepare them for the struggle ahead. "We have not lost yet. We and the workers have to put pressure on the government," he said. The MTUC organized a one day seminar in Kuala Lumpur for workers from all 80 electronics companies operating in Malaysia to discuss strategies and tactics for forming a union for all 85,000 electronics workers in the country. "International organizations and world trade unions could help by putting pressure on the Malaysian government," said G. Rajasegaran, "but ultimately success or failure will depend on the workers themselves."

When the legalization of unions was first announced in September 1988, about 250 delegates from 19 companies met and announced the formation of a seven member NEW pro tem committee. Of the seven, four are women: vice-president Noraini Hayati Mohamad Radzi, a production operator, treasurer K. Kandymady, also a production operator and two others. There are 22 members in the main NEW committee, 16 of whom are women.

The president of the NEW pro tem committee, however, is Haji Yussoff Jais and its secretary is M. Thagarajan, both males. When asked to explain this G. Rajasegaran said the delegates, almost all women themselves, elected Haji Yussoff even though there had also been a woman worker running for the post. "I think they preferred Haji Yussoff who happened to be a male," said G. Rajasegaran. He added that the workers may have "thought he would bang the table and fight for their rights more effectively with the male-dominated management."

Asked about the status of the women workers' fight for their rights, treasurer Kandymady said, "Many of the workers are unaware of their rights because the companies don't allow them to organize and discuss such matters." She said that in the highly-regulated life of a plant worker, there is little opportunity to talk about grievances. This is, in large part, a result of the way that the corporations structure the workers' time. Kandymady said workers are ferried by the company to and from the workplace in order to reduce the possibility of interaction with outsiders and union leaders. "Company executives organize sports, picnic and fashion activities but never union [meetings] or events related to workers' rights and problems. We don't get to discuss how to improve wages and better working conditions," she says. "These subjects are taboo and can get a worker transferred or even dismissed under many pretexts."

NEW vice president Noraini Hayati echoed Kandymady's views, as did Maimun, 24, who is a production worker at Monsanto. Maimun says that since she became involved with NEW her life in the company has been difficult. "I am treated as a dangerous person by the management and am closely watched. Even some workers refuse to associate with me for fear of management harassment," she added. The formation of the NEW pro tem committee has given women workers the first opportunity to discuss their work problems. "Now the committee meets regularly and discusses ways and means of furthering our cause," said Kandymady.

MTUC has begun organizing courses for women electronics workers on a regular basis both in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Each month more than 200 workers take part in seminars and listen to lectures on worker rights, including the right to form a union. Said Motorola worker Dewi, who attended a course in Penang, "For the first time I realized that female workers had been exploited. I was told that the same workers in Singapore are paid three times my wages for the same work--sometimes by the same company." She expressed shock at the discovery. "If the same company can pay three times more wages for the same job in Singapore then they must be making substantial profits all over the world." Dewi asserts that information about the company's structure, profits and international operation should be made known to the company's workers. MTUC has plans underway to print special pamphlets with such information for distribution to electronics workers but company management poses major obstacles to such plans. Said Noraini Hayati, "They are simply dead against any form of organization among workers other than those they have promoted."

The November 1988 strike by the workers at the plant of the Japan-based company, Mitsumi Malaysia, is one example of what the oppressive industry fears most. Soon after the government's surprise announcement, five workers at a Mitsumi factory in Johore were sacked for organizing a strike to ask for better wages and proper shift work, according to A. Arunasalam, general secretary of the National Union of Electrical Industry Workers. Mitsumi workers said the five workers were paid compensation of between M$4,000 to M$8,000, depending on the number of years they had worked.

Most of the other workers at the plant, angered by the dismissals, then joined the strike which lasted 20 days. G. Rajasegaran says that the strikers succeeded in forcing Mitsumi to reschedule its work shifts to eliminate the shift which ended at 1:30 a.m. Before the strike women who worked the last shift were let off work at 1:30 a.m. at which time the company buses which took the workers home would drop them off on main streets, leaving them to get home alone. Workers objected to this practice because of the danger it posed to women alone in the streets in the middle of night. They pointed to statistics showing that the sexual assault rate is very high in Malaysia and to the almost daily newspaper reports of rapes. Now there are three shifts at the plant: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Also as a result of the strike, Mitsumi promised the workers better wages and working conditions. These are now being negotiated by the union. The strike was successful because workers were willing to stand together. Observers say, however, that this solidarity was due to conditions specific to the Mitsumi plant. Most of the workers there come from one of several villages around Batu Pahat and either have known each other from childhood or are blood relatives. Because of the close family ties, the workers were able to join unanimously in the strike after Mitsumi fired their five leaders.

The possibility of the less homogenous 85,000 poorly paid electronics workers in Malaysia forming a national union without government support appears remote. In July, when trade union leaders met with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir, to discuss outstanding labor issues, they left with the impression that workers could not count on help from the government any time in the near future. But the workers are not giving up.

The MTUC August seminar in Kuala Lumpur is only the first part of what they expect will be a long, drawn-out campaign to force the Malaysian government to allow a national union.

Kimori Mai writes for AMPO the Japan-Asia Quarterly Review, published by the Pacific-Asia Resource Center.

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