KUALA LUMPUR, May 12 — The Najib administration has been forced to give in to government labour unions who are flexing their muscles ahead of what is expected to be the most keenly contested elections in Malaysian history, according to this weekend’s The Edge.
Datuk Seri Najib Razak is making a “populist gambit,” the business weekly reported today, as he tries to retake ground lost in the landmark 2008 polls, which saw his Barisan Nasional (BN) cede a record 82 federal seats and five state governments.
The Edge pointed to the scrapping of a new public sector pay scheme that caused anger among the 1.3-million strong civil service who said the package was skewed in favour of senior officials.
It also noted that Putrajaya ceded to in-house unions at GLCs Tenaga Nasional and Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) in the choice of new chief executives.
“What is happening is scary. At the rate we are going, we could end up like Greece in 10 years,” the newspaper quoted a chief executive of a foreign-owned asset management company as saying.
“The unions may have the upper hand now but after the polls they could be the big losers,” he added.
Barisan Nasional (BN) has made unprecedented concessions to workers since record losses in Election 2008 and in the past year announced the country’s first minimum wage and promised to raise the mandatory private sector retirement age to 60.
Putrajaya also unwound the controversial Malaysia Airlines-AirAsia share swap after workers at the flag carrier met the prime minister to express concerns over job security.
It was reported that union leaders dangled their votes openly before the government by saying their over 20,000 members would back the opposition if the proposed tie-up materialised.
“The scrapping of the MAS-AirAsia share swap was a clear example of blackmail. But the PM had little choice because of politics,” The Edge quoted a senior government official involved in the reversal as saying.
The government was also forced to give in to Tenaga Nasional workers who demanded that the new chief executive to replace Datuk Seri Che Khalib Mohd Noh should come from within the organisation, resulting in its chief operating officer Datuk Azman Mohd getting the nod over other external candidates.
The Railwaymen’s Union of Malaysia also succeeding in getting its candidate Datuk Elias Kadir appointed as the new chief executive officer instead of two outsiders shortlisted by the administration.
Private sector workers are also gunning for another victory, using threats of pickets over amendments to the Employment Act, which they say will allow employers to turn a blind eye to workers’ rights.
“Ignoring us could be fatal for Najib,” Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) executive committee member Bruno Pereira told The Malaysian Insider last year, and the umbrella body for labour unions is still calling for the government to reverse the changes.
The importance of the labour vote is not lost on the opposition either. Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) alternative budget last year promised a RM1,100 minimum wage and RM12.8 billion worth of direct income stimulus.
With BN garnering just 50.3 per cent of the popular vote in the last election, Najib will be desperate to avoid the pitfalls that his predecessor Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi failed to sidestep.
Pereira had also said that a key reason why workers turned their backs on BN in 2008 was because the Abdullah administration “rode roughshod on our rights,” citing 2007’s amendments to the Industrial Relations Act that limited severance compensation to 24 months’ pay.
“Since 2008, we have seen more ‘labour-aware’ MPs who will alert us every time there is a law being proposed that infringes on our rights,” he added.
But Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Shamsuddin Bardan has warned against bending backwards to labour demands.
“Yes, for every one employer there are hundreds of employees. But if the economy suffers, we’ll all be in trouble,” he told The Malaysian Insider last year.