Worker protections under TPPA just window dressing, says opposition MP

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Source: The Malaysian Insider

“TPPA: Malaysia Is Not For Sale” books sits on display during its launching at the Karangkraf Complex in Shah Alam on July 11, 2014. The Malaysian Insider/Najjua Zulkefli

“TPPA: Malaysia Is Not For Sale” books sits on display during its launching at the Karangkraf Complex in Shah Alam on July 11, 2014. The Malaysian Insider/Najjua Zulkefli

Worker protections in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) actually amount to nothing, an opposition lawmaker said, as Putrajaya seeks to play up these widely lauded aspects of the contentious pact.

Klang MP Charles Santiago said a big reason for this is because the TPPA would legalise labour sub-contractors and out-sourcing companies, which are notorious for the way they treat workers.

In fact, legally, the Malaysian government currently does not allow labour contracting except in the plantation sector due to problems in how they operate and treat workers.

It is estimated that contractors supply between 40% to 50% of the labour in some sectors such as the electronics and electrical manufacturing sub-sectors, said Santiago, and their numbers are growing.

The TPPA’s changes to current laws, such as the freedom to unionise and mount strikes, said Santiago, are welcome, as are the ability for foreign workers to hold on to their passports.

“But they amount to nothing. It won’t lead to better safety, job security and welfare for workers. It won’t increase their livelihoods or reduce poverty.

“The government has opposed labour contracting but now they will be forced to accept it, and workers under them face high job insecurity,” said Santiago, who has been a staunch critic of the United States-driven supra-trade pact.

The TPPA’s proponents have claimed that the pact will lead to better worker protections as it mandates that member countries change their labour laws to suit the agreement.

On paper, these amendments include making it easier for unions to be set up and recognised, allowing foreign workers to join unions and even take up official posts.

The TPPA would also remove limitations on what can be negotiated in collective bargaining sessions and make it easier for disgruntled workers to go on strike.

These amendments would also substantially cut the powers of director-general of trade unions, who currently has full discretion on union recognition and whether workers can mount strikes.

Labour activists have in the past claimed that current Malaysian laws have crippled the local union movement, while academics have argued that weak unions lead to suppressed wages.

Modern day slavery

Labour contractors or the practice of outsourcing workers is another huge problem in the labour market, said Santiago. Unionists have even called it modern-day slavery.

This is the practice where companies get their workers from an outside contractor instead of the traditional practice of directly recruiting them.

Labour contractors would move the workers they have from one company to another, sometimes in the space of a few months according to demand.

Activists have accused these contractors of not providing basic protections such as work insurance or medical care, and not providing Employee Provident Fund (EPF) deductions or (Social Security) Socso.

Labour contractors are also notorious for how they easily sack their workers, at times giving them 24-hours notice.

The grey area on who is the ultimate employer of a contractor-supplied worker also makes it hard for them to join unions.

By legalising labour contracting, Santiago said, Putrajaya would essentially nullify the impact of the new TPPA-mandated protections.

“If a worker with a labour contractor gets moved around from company to company or sector to sector, how is he going to join a union? Which union is he supposed to join?” he said.

“It would also perpetuate low wages because a labour-contracted worker who gets moved around has little chance of up-skilling and gaining a promotion in his job.”

At the same time, the law allowing foreign workers to join unions is illusory as they have to work a minimum of three years in the same company in order to benefit.

“What will happen is that companies will only give out three-year contracts to foreign workers. Once three years is up, they will get a new three-year contract which specifies that they are a new worker,” said Santiago.

If a foreigner is under a labour contractor, odds are he will not be allowed to work for the same company for three years.

However, in the end, foreign workers would be bigger beneficiaries of the TPPA’s amendments compared with locals but not by much, said Santiago.

Better protections for Malaysian workers would still be hard to realise, Santiago added.

Also under the TPPA, foreign workers will get to keep their passports and their employers will have to pay their levies, both of which are currently not practised. – November 27, 2015.