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Monday, September 17, 2001 The Star

Union of discord


THE National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW), the sole national
union for plantation workers in Malaysia today, was born of a merger
between state-based unions. Needless to say, it was a birth accompanied
by severe labour pains. A combination of factors with roots in colonial
history, the post-World War II labour policy of the colonial government,
and the need to contain the spread of communism in general and militant
left-wing trade unions in particular helped create this awkward child.

In June 1954, five plantation state-based unions amalgamated to form the
National Union of Plantation Workers. They were the Plantation Workers
Union of Malaya (formerly Negeri Sembilan Indian Labour Union),
Malayan Estate Workers Union (formerly Perak Estate Employees
Union), Johor State Plantation Workers Union (formerly North Johor
Indian Labour Union), Malacca Estate Workers Union and Alor Gajah
Labour Union (in Malacca).

A moderate trade union such as the NUPW could not have developed in
the charged atmosphere of the Emergency (declared by the British in June
1948 to battle communist insurgency) without guidance from the Trade
Union Adviser of Malaya, John Brazier. The Englishman, who was with
the British Trade Union Council, was sent to Malaya to advise trade union
leaders to eschew militant unionism and move, instead, towards
moderation and create unions amenable to the government.

The declaration of the Emergency provided a convenient platform for his
office to identify pro-British union leaders who would be amenable to the
employers’ and government’s points of view on industrial matters. In this
respect, the close relationship between the adviser and some noted union
leaders played a significant part in the evolution of post-war colonial labour
policy. The policy in essence was the containment of left-wing union
activities through a combination of repressive and responsive initiatives that
influenced the trade union movement to pursue objectives that were
“moderate” and “reasonable”.

Thus, in the course of his work, Brazier – with the help of the Special
Branch – was able to identify union leaders who were anti-communist, of
middle-class origins, who could speak English and, most importantly, who
would work together with the government in building a trade union
movement without left-wing tendencies. A few years after the declaration
of the Emergency, Brazier succeeded in identifying and nurturing good
personal relationships with leaders such as P. P. Narayanan (Plantation
Workers Union of Malaya), John Emmanuel (Malayan Estate Employees
Union), Govindan Nair (Johor State Plantation Workers Union), one
Dawood (Alor Gajah Labour Union) and Subbiah (Malacca Estate
Workers Union). It was these leaders who eventually played a key role in
the formation of the NUPW.

Although Brazier identified these leaders, he had to insure there was
nobody in these unions who would be sympathetic to the radical and
left-wing unions. Archival records show clearly how Brazier used the
Special Branch to intimidate leaders who did not follow his dictates. For
instance, Rayal Jose and K.P.C. Menon, who were opposed to
Narayanan’s close accommodation with the British authorities, were
removed from the trade union scene through threats, Special Branch
intimidation and other methods that eventually worked to the advantage of
Brazier and his main ally, Narayanan.

Forming a single union for plantation workers was important for a number
of reasons. First, the plantation industry was strategic in view of the
significant amount of revenue generated. Second, this sector had a large
number of unions and could serve as a model for the trade union
movement in Malaya. Third, Brazier had the most contact with plantation
trade unionists compared with other sectors; thus, the plantation sector
provided the most convenient platform for shaping the direction of the
trade union movement in the post-war period.

Before the integration of the five unions took place, an impression was
created that the merger would assume the form of an amalgamation. When
the integration process gained momentum, however, it became clear that
the objective was not so much amalgamation but a full integration where
member unions would lose their identity. Despite the opposition of some of
the member unions, integration could not be halted.

The colonial government’s support for the merger, the backing of the
influential International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the need for
workers’ solidarity to deal with wage cuts, and the close alliance between
Narayanan and Brazier and others ensured that the integration of the five
unions into one union was beyond challenge.

But then, in the 1960s, as result of the ineffective representation of
plantation labour by the NUPW, a rival union, the United Malayan Estate
Workers Union, was formed in Seremban to take up the cause of estate
workers. It was short-lived as it was banned by the government on the
grounds that it was the front for the Communist Party of Malaya. A
number of trade activists associated with this union were detained under
the Internal Security Act.

With the banning of this alternative union, the NUPW emerged as the sole
union for plantation workers in the country. Thus, in the 1970s, ’80s and
’90s, the union closely accommodated with employers and the state in
ensuring that plantation labour would not adopt radical measures to
challenge the status quo. The union sought to seek representation by
placing emphasis on collective bargaining, tripartite negotiations, and
obtaining piecemeal concessions from employers. Thus, the union could
not provide effective representation for labour in plantations.

Whether the NUPW can really champion the rights of plantation workers
today remains doubtful. Urbanisation and commercialisation in the last two
decades suggest that the country’s plantation industry might not last too
long as higher labour costs and loss of land force employers to relocate to
other areas. If this is going to be the likely trend in years to come, then the
union might have problems in terms of recruitment and representation.

Dr P. Ramasamy is a professor of political economy at the Political
Science Department, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia; he is currently
researching conditions of plantation labour in Sumatra, poverty
among former plantation workers, and the impact of the Asean Free
Trade Agreement on trade unions in Asean. Among his publications
on these subjects is Plantation Labour, Unions, Capital and the State
in Peninsular Malaysia (Oxford University Press, 1994).

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