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MALAYSIA: Workers to March Against Privatization

by Anil NettoIPS
April 29th, 2005

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 country.

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 compromised.

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 soared.

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)

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