Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

Trade Unions in Malaysia: Perspectives of Employers & Employees of Unionized Companies

Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

Trade Unions in Malaysia: Perspectives of Employers & Employees of Unionized Companies

Article excerpt

Trade Unions in Malaysia

Trade unions have traditionally been regarded as important instruments for protecting workers' interests at workplace. However, the decline in union density worldwide in recent times seems to signify a weakening of their influence (Aminuddin 2008, Bramble 2001, Benson & Zhu 2008, Heery 2002). Membership decline, structural changes in employment, management practices, membership participation and democracy, the legislative framework, and the political influence of unions have been under scrutiny in the developed countries (Waddington & Whitson 1993). In addition, trade unions are confronted by economic factors, generally beyond their control, such as threat of capital flight, and overseas competition. The Malaysian trade union movement is in such a predicament and it can be argued that the movement is faced with a number of challenges from changing labour market structure and neo-liberal policies. Todd and Peetz (2001) argue that overall Malaysia's industrial relations remain firmly within the 'control' rather than the 'commitment' framework. The state interventions remains pervasive, managerial control in the workplace continues to dominate and labour's ability to bargain collectively remains restricted. The provisions in legislations such as the Trade Unions Act 1959 and the Industrial Relations Act 1967 have made it very difficult for workers to organise themselves.

Industrial relations practices (including employment practices) in Malaysia have changed and continue to evolve since the general unionism from the 1920s to the defeat of the Communist trade union movement in 1947-48, and industrial unionism from 1948 until the eighties--when it now faces the prospect of being replaced by enterprise unionism. Various amendments to the legislation linked to employment and industrial relations, and industrialization strategies since the post-Independence years (1957 and beyond) have had a marked effect upon the activities of the employers and the trade unions. This has necessitated a careful examination of the extent of change in industrial relations in Malaysia. Attention has focused on two areas: first, the decline in the strength of organised labour as evidenced by a variety of statistics and second, the driving forces for this change.

Trade union density in Malaysia was 9.35% in 1990 (Ministry of Human Resources 1991), dropped to 9.24% in 1995 and 7.87% in 2000 (Department of Trade Union Affairs 2003, Department of Statistics 2006). Despite a slight increase to 8.5% in 2002, density has seen an overall decline in the subsequent years, to 7.7% in 2006 and to 7.45 per cent in 2008. Average membership per trade union dipped from 1,401.3 in 1995 to 1,317.4 a decade later. The slide in the average members per union continued from 1,296 in 2006, to 1,248.9 in 2008. While absolute union membership has continued to increase over the years, the average membership per union has continued to decline, which points to the trade union movement having many unions with small membership size. One would wonder at this point whether trade unions are a necessary institution. Josey (1958: 89) concluded that "without strong trade unions, Malaya is almost certain either to go communist or else degenerate into some form of authoritarianism". Even if one does not agree entirely with Josey's views, short span of history has indeed shown that trade unions have played an important role in industrial harmony. However, questions have been raised, ever so often, on their relevance by employers as the literature have revealed.

There have been research works on the Malaysian labour movement (e.g. Anantaraman 1997, Arudsothy 1988, Bhopal 2001, Jomo 1995, Kuruvilla 1995, Parasuraman 2004), but most of the studies have taken on a qualitative approach, with limited primary research to support the assertions. Empirical studies on the Malaysian trade unions, and in particular the perceptions of employers in unionised companies are lacking despite its importance to current debate on trade unionisation. …

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