Malaysia: The giant surrenders — workers win 12-year battle

February 14, 2008

It was a victory long overdue. The corporate giant — plantation company Lion Group — could have resolved the issue a decade ago, but it chose the path of arrogance and sheer disregard for its toiling workers.

The workers living at the Brooklands estate — who were fighting for their houses against Lion Group's plan to develop luxury housing, bungalows and shop-lots — fought Lion over a protracted war that took 12 years, with the workers emerging victorious.

The February 10 victory parade started at a critical junction at the plantation. With drums and banners, they marched to the estate field where a decorated stage was waiting for the victory celebrations.

One of the most important speeches of the day was delivered by Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) activist A. Sivarajan, who tirelessly struggled with the workers, helping lead them to an astonishing victory.

The problem arouse when Akurjaya Plantations (a subsidiary of Lion Group) bought the estate from Dunlop Estates to develop it. This began a long drawn-out war with battles fought on many fronts.

At each juncture of the struggle, the workers managed to counter the corporate giant. It took 12 years for the workers to finally secure a permanent roof over their heads.

The first battle was with the mill workers. In 1995, they were informed the mill would close and they had three months to vacate their homes. They were only offered compensation of RM100 per year of service. While the union representing them accepted the offer, a number of workers refused to go along with it.

The battle began when the corporation disconnected the water and electricity supply. This caused a few more workers to leave, but four workers did not budge and stayed for another three years of severe hardship.

These workers defiance prompted a fight-back, with demonstrations at Lion headquarters and a legal battle against Lion's attempts to evict the workers. The state government was dragged into the conflict in order to help expose the inhumane attitude of Lion.

Finally, after three years, Lion accepted defeat and withdrew its court case. Water and electricity were restored for the workers.

The second victory was when Lion used police to repress social activists, in an attempt to prevent them from linking up with people at the estate.

The climax came when three activists — including Sivarajan and myself — were arrested while holding a meeting at the estate temple. Our arrest, which was intended to create fear, back-fired when the entire work force went out on a strike. It was a blow against the corporation.

The police charged us with criminal trespass, and we were found guilty and fined in the magistrates court. However, this ruling was overturned in the High Court. The failure to stop activists from engaging with the workers' struggle was the second victory.

The third victory was when Lion constructed pigeon-box flats for the workers, and the workers refused to move in. This time, not just the mill workers but the main division workers were given eviction notices as well.

The company used various tactics to pressure and persuade the workers to move. It tried individually dividing the workers, but did not succeed. The workers refused to move. Against the odds, the flats built by Lion were left abandoned — the corporation was shocked.

Finally, faced with no choice, the company agreed to build low-cost terrace houses near the plantation. It was a massive victory in an era where the only low-cost housing available has been flats.

The backdown did not fall from the sky. There were many more demonstrations at Lion headquarters. Workers also blocked roads and stopped development projects.

By the end of the struggle, the Lion Group was brought to its knees.

The final victory came when the workers managed to get compensation from the company. The last six months have been peaceful, with both parties working towards a resolution. Small outstanding issues have been resolved, and a housing agreement signed.

At the victory celebration, the story of the struggle was told in the form of sketches, songs, speeches and poems. Workers from other estates came to give solidarity. Speeches were delivered by PSM chairperson Nasir and myself. The PSM flag was everywhere — it has become the symbol of the people's struggle in the last few years.

The 54 families at the estate received souvenirs in recognition of their achievement, tears accompanying them to the victory stage as they received their gifts. Theirs is a story of how a small group of plantation workers can defeat a giant.

[S. Arutchelvan is the secretary general of the PSM.]

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