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A rubber tapper and Justice Harun Hashim
Baradan Kuppusamy
3:13pm Fri Nov 7th, 2003
I refer to the article Kit Siang pays tribute to late Harun Hashim dated Nov 6, 2003.
Allow me to relate to your readers the story of rubber tapper Govinda Pillai and his fateful encounter with Justice Harun Hashim some thirty years ago.
First, some background.
As you might know, rubber tappers do not work when it rains. This is not because they are unwilling to work or afraid to get wet but because the bark of rubber trees yield less latex when wet and additional tapping on a wet bark damages the tree. For these reasons, estates prefer to keep their workers in the barracks when it rains.
You might think it is a holiday every time it rains but no. Rubber tappers are daily rated they don't get paid for not working on a rainy day.
During the rainy season when it rains most days, rubber tappers suffer a drastic reduction in their wages. Hunger grips their stomachs and they borrow to buy food and soon get into debt - either to the provision shop or the visiting loan shark. Soon they are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, debt and more debts.
To ease their burden, the paternalistic colonial government introduced the concept of a "living wage" for rubber tappers. This simply means that the tapper should be paid a daily wage to enable him to eat so that he could get up the next day and go to work.
This concept of "living wage" is enshrined in Sec 16 of the Employment Act 1955. That section guarantees rubber tappers 24 days of wages in a month irrespective of whether it rains or shines. It is a safety net and protects the poor man from the vagaries of weather.
For example, if for three days in a particular month the tapper did not work because of rain, then the estate must pay the three days wages. But estate barons seldom comply with Sec 16 and always find ways to avoid this legal obligation. They stick to their inflexible rule for rubber tappers: No Work, No Pay.
In June 1973 it rained a lot and Govinda Pillai, a rubber tapper in the former Kinrara estate in Puchong, was only able to go to work for 17 days that month. He was only paid for the 17 days and not a minimum of 24 days, as guaranteed by Sec 16. The estate owed him seven days wages.
Govinda Pillai decided to file a claim in the Kajang labour court for the balance seven days of wages amounting to RM22.40. Little did he realize that his claim would shake the entire plantation industry.
Sure enough, the Labour Court ruled in his favour and ordered Kinrara estate to pay Govinda Pillai RM22.40. End of the matter? No!
After realising that the claim and the subsequent award, no matter how paltry, would set a dangerous legal precedent, Kinrara estate, helped by the planters club, hired the best lawyers in the country and filed an appeal against the RM22. 40 award in the High Court in Kuala Lumpur in 1974.
Govinda Pillai's case or rather Kinrara estates appeal landed before Justice Harun Hashim in 1974 - a fateful encounter indeed!
The stakes were high. If every rubber tapper is paid RM10 per month per tapper because of rain that amounts to RM120 a year. For 100,000 tappers, the sum would be RM12 million a year from the pockets of the planters.
Things get a bit muddy from here.
It is not clear whether Justice Harun heard the case in 1974 and reserved judgment or whether the file was "lost" or "forgotten." But judgment was delayed for 21 years.
On June 29, 1994 - that is 21 years after the case was filed - and a day before his retirement - Harun Hashim delivered judgment and ruled in favour of Govinda Pillai. Kinrara estate has to pay him RM22.40 as claimed.
In the interval, Govinda Pillai had died along with his lawyer DP Xavier and the estate was sold and redeveloped into several housing estates. The estate owners are probably dead too.
I wrote about this strange delay in the Star in July 1994. A day or two later Justice Harun Hashim responded telling another reporter in the Star, who unquestioningly reproduced his explanation, that the file was somehow misplaced and that the court staff found it 21 years later and gave it to him for decision - a day before he retired.
The same month, I tracked down Govinda Pillai's wife and grandchildren who were living in great poverty in a ramshackle hut in a "railway line" squatter settlement near Jalan Ipoh.
She was almost blind. I told her "Govinda Pillai has won the case!"
"He would have been happy had he been alive," she told me. During a later visit she said it would cost RM500 in legal fees to claim the RM22.40.
She never did. It still rains and rubber tappers still don't get their minimum 24 days wages a month.
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