By Anil Netto, IPS
4 May 1999
PENANG, Malaysia, May 4 (IPS) – Shanmugavalli Rajagopal, 43, is one determined woman. Retrenched as a rubber tapper in July, she has been asked to vacate her plantation house.
But she isn’t budging. “If we clap with one hand, there is no sound,” she says, motioning with one hand. “But if we all work together, we can achieve something.”
Just a year ago, such fighting words would probably not have spilled out of Shanmugavalli’s mouth. For decades, Malaysia’s 300,000 rubber plantation workers have toiled silently under exploitative conditions.
In exchange for meagre wages, they laboured hard and provided a solid foundation to the economy while fuelling the spectacular profits of the plantation firms.
But as more rubber plantation companies convert their estates to even more profitable use, plantation workers — many of whom are Tamil Malaysians — have finally found their voices and are noisily demanding what they say is due them. This they do even at risk of joining the unemployed during a time of recession.
“The government is not doing enough. It is not helping us,” says rubber tapper Subramaniam Periasamy, who acts as a secretary for a retrenched workers committee, explaining why the workers have suddenly become active in pursuing their rights. “We need to unite to bring about change.”
One of the major grouses of workers like Shanmugavalli and Subramaniam is that they are paid wages based on the number of days worked, the weight of latex or oil palm bunches collected, and prevailing commodity prices.
Bad weather and drops in commodity prices therefore trim precious ringgit off their small incomes that barely reach 300 ringgit (79 dollars) a month each.
Activists have also highlighted the fact that their real wages have remained stagnant since the 1970s. What’s more, rubber plantation workers are the only group of labourers in the country who do not enjoy an annual increment under their collective agreement with employers.
Instead, the plantation firms create a sense of dependency among the workers by providing tiny houses with the most basic of amenities.
With their low salaries, the workers have no choice but to remain where they are since even a low-cost house outside the plantations would cost 35,000 ringgit (9,200 dollars) — well beyond their reach.
Observers also say that even if the workers can afford such houses, they would be hard-pressed to find them. There is simply not enough affordable housing to go around.
The situation has taken a more bitter twist with retrenchment the trend in the plantation estates.
The hundreds of laid-off workers being asked to leave their plantation accommodations are finding that their retrenchment compensation of 3,000-7,000 ringgit (789 to 1,842 dollars) each is too little for them to buy their own houses outside the estates, where they have lived for generations.
Thus, among the plantation workers’ demands are 1,000 ringgit (263 dollars) for every year of service and access to permanent affordable housing. They also want a minimum monthly salary of 750 ringgit (197 dollars), a one-month annual bonus, and a 50-ringgit (13 dollars) annual increment.
The workers have so far sent four letters to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — all of which have yet to get a reply.
On April 19, some 40 buses carrying 1,600 workers from 200 estates rumbled into Kuala Lumpur, where the chanting labourers then lined both sides of the roads leading to Parliament and waved placards demanding fixed monthly wages and affordable permanent housing.
The workers also carried 50,000 signature-campaign postcards in a wheelbarrow and in two tins — normally used for holding latex — which hung on both ends of a pole.
Each postcard, addressed to Mahathir, bore the worker’s name, identity card number and signature. The postcards were later dumped in the foyer of Parliament, but no representative of the government came out to meet them.
Activist Ganesh Rasagam says that for the workers, this confirms that “the government is indifferent to their welfare and is more interested in protecting the plantation firms’ profits”.
Indeed, Human Resources Minister Lim Ah Lek has dismissed the workers’ action as being instigated by non-government organisations with a hidden agenda, and declined to tackle the issues raised by the workers.
The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), an umbrella for trade unions in various industries, has backed the workers demands.
But the National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW) has distanced itself from the workers’ protest, stating it will stick to negotiations with employers.
A senior MTUC official said the estate workers have resorted to protest only out of frustration with their union’s impotence. To be sure, many workers appear to have lost faith with the NUPW, preferring to trust social activists.
Meanwhile, observers say that with a crucial general election looming by April 2000, government officials cannot afford to ignore the workers much longer.
After decades of silent collective misery, Malaysia’s large but hidden plantation community is now conscious of its strength in numbers and is determined to make its presence felt.
“The workers cannot be hoodwinked anymore,” says Ganesh. ” There are no more excuses left.”
By Anil Netto, IPS