Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Innovations in Trade Union Approaches in Malaysia's Garment Industry

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Innovations in Trade Union Approaches in Malaysia's Garment Industry

Article excerpt


Most Malaysian workers have the formal right to engage in trade union activity, and in the year 2000, there were 351 trade unions in the private sector and 127 in the public sector (Ministry of Human Resources, Malaysia 2002). However, not all workers have a choice about what sort of trade union they may join, especially since Mahathir's in-house union policy, which he promoted as part of his 'Look East' strategy, was implemented in the early 1980s (Wad 1997: 94; Arudsothy & Littler 1993: 128).

For migrant workers in particular, trade unionism has offered little. Although there are no legal impediments imposed by the Ministry of Human Resources on the unionisation of migrant workers, their right to organise is effectively curtailed by conditions placed on their work permits by the Department of Immigration (United States Department of State 2000: 27). This paper examines the impact that changes in the garment and textile industries have had on women workers, and how non-governmental organisations (NGO) activities with workers in Malaysia's textile and garment industries have affected trade union approaches to women workers.

Changes in the Garment and Textile Industries

For many Malaysian manufacturers in the garment and textile industries, the trade liberalisation of recent years has meant increasing levels of pressure to cut the cost of production without increasing their level of technology. So, while wages have risen in some parts of the industry (Interview with workers, Johor 2000), the majority of garment and textile workers continue to earn low wages in labour-intensive factories. This invisible sector of the garment and textile industries consists of poorly paid workers, married working class women with young children and foreign workers. Unskilled workers in the textile and garment industries must work overtime, because the minimum wage is not enough to meet living expenses (Interview S, Selangor 1999). The government will neither set a minimum wage for workers in the manufacturing sector nor permit the state textile trade unions to form a national textile trade union. Both these restrictions prevent migrant and local workers alike from attaining a decent wage (Interview P, Penang 1999).

Three major strategies have been adopted in an attempt to maintain Malaysia's presence in the low-cost end of garment and textile manufacturing. The first of these has been a geographical shift to the lesser-developed states of Malaysia in the textile and garment sectors. The core of the Malaysian garment manufacturing industry is located in urban areas of Selangor, Johor and Penang, while the periphery is located the rural areas in Johor and Kedah. In the late 1990s, new government strategies initiated a shift from the core to the periphery within Malaysia in an attempt to prevent capital flight to other low wage countries (Malaysian Government 1998: 225). The garment industry in the rural town of Batu Pahat in Johor, for example, has expanded into the largest producer of textiles and garments in Malaysia over the last five years. Batu Pahat now produces 40 per cent of Malaysia's textiles (MTMA Report 1999). Likewise, Kedah (in the north) has increased its production of garments and textiles. This process, which is part of the government's plan to develop the Eastern Corridor, has enabled garment manufacturers to find a suitably-priced labour force, and, at the same time has encouraged development in the peripheral states in Malaysia. It has been made possible by the supply of young educated rural women who will accept low wages and are capable of developing the skills necessary for work in the garment industry (Interview P, Penang 1999).

In addition to geographical relocation, garment producers have relied increasingly on contractors and homeworkers in traditional garment and textile manufacturing regions. In Selangor, in particular, local Malaysian firms are cutting costs by moving from factory operations to home work. …

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