MALAYSIA: Workers to March Against Privatization

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Malaysia's workers will mark International Labor Day on May 1 with a strong protest
against globalisation, which they feel is gradually eroding away their rights and making
poor Malaysians poorer.

Some 5,000 thousand trade union members are expected to gather on Saturday night at
Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) to usher in Labour Day in one of the biggest
workers' gatherings in recent times. They are expected to be joined by up to 3,000
political and grassroots activists as well as workers from marginalised sectors from across
the country.

This year's theme is 'Globalisation erodes workers' rights'. And uppermost on the minds of
workers will be their concern over the privatisation of water and healthcare services in the

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress, the main organisers of the gathering, is heading
into unknown territory under the leadership of committed trade unionists who swept aside
the national labour centre's previous leadership, which was widely seen as politically

For newly elected MTUC president Syed Shahir Syed Mohamud, workers have reason to be
worried about globalisation. ''We are concerned about privatisation, the right (which has
been taken away) of civil servants to engage in collective bargaining, lack of security of
tenure, (the struggle for) a minimum wage, and the occupational safety and health of
workers,'' he told IPS.

Rani Rasiah, one of the coordinators of the Oppressed Peoples Network (JERIT), agrees that
these issues are of major concerns to workers now. JERIT brings together five different
coalitions of groups working among urban pioneers, plantation workers, factory workers,
farmers and students.

''This year it's very stark,'' she said. ''We are feeling the effects of globalisation even more
than we did last year.'' But she said the government was being shrewd. ''They are giving it
to us in little doses.''

She said its actions were not much different from those of governments in Europe, where
workers' rights and security of tenure are gradually being eroded. Apart from the issues
Syed Shahir mentioned, she spoke of local workers being forced to face competition from
migrant workers as well as worries about multinational companies relocating to other
countries in search of cheaper labour.

But it is the privatisation of essential services like water and healthcare that is dominating
concern in this year's gathering. ''It's a good thing that the MTUC is taking an interest in
this issue (of privatisation).''

The MTUC has joined the newly set up Coalition Against Water Privatisation, which is
opposing the privatisation of water supply management in the country amidst fears that it
will lead to higher tariffs and burden the poor.

Parliament passed the Constitution Amendment Bill in January transferring supply and
management of water away from respective states to the federal level to pave the way for
water privatisation. Two more bills - The Water Industry Bill and a bill to establish a
regulatory National Water Services Commission - are expected to be passed soon. The
government, meanwhile, is bypassing the need to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee
to solicit views from the public and civil society groups.

The Coalition Against Water Privatisation, comprising 26 civil society groups, has been
trying to raise awareness among workers and the public about the perils of privatisation.

''The privatisation of water resources is taking place at a time when the cost of other
essential services such as healthcare, infant food, rental, food, petrol, transport and
education is escalating,'' said Charles Santiago, the coordinator of the coalition, in a recent
commentary. These rising costs are marginalizing the poor and low-income workers and
increasing hardship to vulnerable groups, he added.

Other activists are campaigning against the privatisation of healthcare. Key services in
state-run general hospitals such as maintenance, catering, procurement and supply of
medicines have already been privatised. The result: expenditure on these services has

To cope with rising costs, the government has just announced the setting up of the
National Health Financing Scheme from next year. Under this scheme, Malaysians would
have to make regular contributions for healthcare. This is in contrast to the situation now,
whereby Malaysians have access to medical treatment at nominal costs from government
hospitals and more expensive treatment at private hospitals.

''I think it is bad news,'' said Jeyakumar Devaraj, a respiratory physician-turned-activist
who is on the steering committee of the Coalition Against Healthcare Privatisation.
''Overall, there is a tendency to shift the financial burden to the workers.''

He said this was done either by shifting the tax burden or by making them pay for services
once provided by the state.

Devaraj mentioned the proposed Goods and Services Tax, a tax on consumer spending, as
an example of the shifting of the burden of taxes to workers even as corporation taxes are
kept low.

''What's more, they bring in migrant workers and allow contract workers to keep wages at
low levels,'' he complained. ''All this puts economic pressure on the workers.''

Although a National Healthcare Financing Scheme would theoretically provide additional
funds for general hospitals and allow cross-subsidies for the poor, Devaraj is worried.

He questioned the occasion the Health Ministry chose to announce the national scheme: at
the launching of two private medical insurance schemes by a major insurance firm in Kuala
Lumpur. ''The Health Minister should have told the firm to hold on, as the new national
healthcare financing scheme was coming into force.''

''It's not a question of the idea (of a national healthcare scheme). Rather it has to be
administered by a government that has the interests of the poor and workers at heart,'' he
told IPS. ''Right now, I don't see any commitment towards improving healthcare services
for the poor. In fact, the whole system of setting up a parallel private hospitals sector has
bled the public (general hospitals) sector dry.''

MTUC's Syed Shahir is clearly concerned. ''We are taking the issue of privatisation
seriously,'' he said, ''and we will go down to the grassroots to take serious initiatives to
create awareness among workers.'' (END/2005)

AMP Section Name:Privatization
  • 184 Labor