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Plantation workers union slammed for failures
Ajinder Kaur

4:51pm, Wed: The National Union of Plantation Workers has been accused of
"living in its own world" and for failing to advance the struggle of its down-trodden
members.

The Plantation Workers Support Committee (PWSC) today warned that the
national union could become obsolete if the struggle of plantation workers is
pursued by other organisations.

"With dwindling membership and loss of what little influence it had in the past,
NUPW is now staring at its own demise in the future.

"NUPW's failure is the reason why the workers have been turning more to
community-based non-governmental organisations," said PWSC coordinator D
Letchimi Devi, whose NGO campaigns for improvements in the plantations.

She also slammed NUPW's executive secretary A Navamukundan and general
secretary G Sankaran for blaming employers, NGOs and workers for the appalling
conditions in the plantation sectors.

"Navamukundan claimed that the workers were leaving the plantations because
the employers failed to offer a comprehensive employment package .

"We feel while that may be true, what he failed to admit is the abject failure of
NUPW in securing decent wages and living conditions for the plantation workers,"
she said.

Letchimi added that until today, housing conditions in most estates in rural areas
were still not in accordance to the requirements of the minimum standards of
Housing and Amenities Act 1990.

"After years of negotiating, what has the union achieved? If the days of picket or
strikes have passed and negotiation is the answer to all woes of plantation
workers as put by Sankaran, why then do the problems remain unsolved?" she
asked.

'Cosmetic change'

According to Letchimi, the recently concluded palm oil collective agreement
between NUPW and the Malaysian Agriculture Producers Association failed to
implement the actual concept of monthly wage to the workers.

She added the union had contended that the RM325 agreed upon with Mapa was
a monthly wage when in reality the agreement stated that the amount was a
guaranteed security net if the workers turned up for work on the provided working
days.

"This shows that the colonial wage system that was daily-based and determined
by external factors has been maintained.

"Therefore, the new monthly wage system is merely a cosmetic change in order to
impress the workers and to cover-up the union's failure to negotiate a decent
monthly wage system," said Letchimi.

She also questioned Sankaran's accusation that the workers and NGOs were
asking for unreasonable demands.

"What is unreasonable? Is the workers demand for fair wage and better living
conditions unreasonable, or is the mere RM325 negotiated by the union
reasonable?"

Idealism and reality

She pointed out that while her organisation had asked for a minimum wage of
RM750, others have demanded an even higher amount.

This, she said, included the Malaysian Trade Union Congress, which is seeking a
minimum wage of RM900, while Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad suggested
RM1,200 and the Primary Industries Ministry had in 1998 said that it was looking
into the possibility of plantation workers earning RM2,000 per month.

Yet, she lamented, the national union was calling all of them idealists while the
amount of RM325 was deemed reasonable by the union.

On Monday, Navamukundan urged NGOs to "check their facts first" and not exploit
estate workers to gain mileage.

He added that such groups should also understand the difference between
idealism and reality as far as the campaign for minimum wage was concerned.

Meanwhile, Sankaran had said that estate workers must understand the value of
productivity against wage entitlement and not make excessive demands without
proper consultation.

They were both speaking after attending the recent NUPW northern region's 12th
delegates conference in Sungai Petani, Kedah.


----------------
Decent wages for plantation workers: support group
Ajinder Kaur

7:34pm, Wed: Plantation workers cannot be treated as a profit-making commodity
for employers as they have needs to be fulfilled and the right to decent living, a
support group said today.

Plantation Workers' Support Committee co-ordinator Kohila Yanasekaran said that
if plantation employers could not give decent wages, then the plantation industry
should be shut down as it condoned poverty.

"Likewise, if elected representatives cannot address the people's views, then they
should just resign and seek employment with a plantation company," she said in
a press statement.

Kohila was responding to National Unity and Community Development Ministry
parliamentary secretary S Veerasingam's statement in The Sun newspaper today
that plantation workers must place more importance on productivity and avert
social problems instead of dwelling on wages.

Veerasingam was also quoted as saying that workers should not be exploited by
certain non-governmental organisations which only wanted to run down the
government by urging the workers to demand for free housing.

The MIC, he said, could instead hold talks to reduce house prices from RM42,000
to RM25,000.

Selling land

Kohila said, however, contrary to Veerasingam's statement "which seems to be
consistent with the employers' lingo", statistics have shown that plantation
workers' productivity has always been on the rise.

"Today, after MIC has failed miserably in obtaining a decent monthly wage for
plantation workers, they are now saying wages is not the issue.

"Veerasingam must bear in mind that it was the MIC which was shouting in its
annual general meeting two years ago that workers should be given a decent
monthly wage. Then the workers got a safety net of RM325 a month, way below
the poverty line," she said.

She added that it was impossible for the workers to pay RM25,000 for a house
when their salaries could not make ends meet.

"Our research shows that most estate owners are converting their estates to
profit-orientated businesses such as selling estate land to the property market.

"These companies just need to sell, at the most, two bungalow lots and they will
be able to subsidise the entire housing woes of that local community," said
Kohila.

Economic status

She also pointed out that social problems were influenced by the economic status
of a community and easy options were to always blame the victims and look at
the symptoms rather than the causes.

"So, if the economic problem is not solved, how can the social problems be
eradicated?

"Veerasingam only seems to seek simple short-cuts rather than address the key
fundamental issues," said Kohila.

Meanwhile, Keadilan national publicity bureau assistant secretary N Rajen Diran
said it was ironic that Veerasingam's statement was a complete reversal from MIC
president S Samy Vellu's frequent outbursts against the unsympathetic attitude
displayed by plantation employers and the government towards workers' plight.

"Is this a direct backhanded admission that the MIC has failed to resolve the
decade-old plantation wage issue?

"If it is so, then even the token representation that the MIC has offered the
Indian community is in danger of being eroded!" he said.

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