Fed Up, Rubber Workers Rise in Protest
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
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
Bad weather and drops in commodity prices therefore trim precious ringgit
off their small incomes that barely reach 300 ringgit (79 dollars) a
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
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
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
Meanwhile, observers say that with a crucial general election looming
by April 2000, government officials cannot afford to ignore the workers
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."