Malaysia: PSM pioneers new ways of organising contract labour

June 5, 2024
women workers at a help desk, marching at May Day
Dana Langaswaran giving advice to workers. Inset: Participating in Kuala Lumpur's May Day march carrying a sign that reads: 'Living wage'. Photos supplied.

Danaletchumi (Dana) Langaswaran is a socialist and labour rights activist in Perak state, from where she runs a nationwide workers' helpline initiated by the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) and the Network of Government Contract Workers (JPKK). She will be one of the international guest speakers at the Ecosocialism 2024 conference, to be held June 28–30 in Boorloo/Perth and online.

Green Left spoke to Dana about the PSM’s experience in organising contract workers, whom she estimates comprise 60‒70% of the country’s workers.

The once-strong left-led trade union movement was violently repressed by the British colonial rulers and then conservative local elites after independence in 1957, leaving it been weak and ineffective. It has failed to defend the interests of most workers, especially those in the private sector.

“The contract system makes it hard for workers to organise through unions because the subcontracting employers keep changing, and that is why we formed a network of contract workers, JPKK, and set up a workers hotline,” said Dana.

“When we receive complaints through the hotline, we take up their case and try to get them to join the network.

“It doesn’t matter if they are cleaners or security workers or other contract workers, they can become members of JPKK.”

The PSM also started a union for hospital cleaners, which since 2022 has expanded to include all contract workers in government buildings.

Most of the complaints received through the hotline — which the PSM set up in 2020 — concern underpayment of wages — a very common practice by subcontracting employers. If individual workers take their complaints directly to the Labour Office they risk losing their jobs.

Job insecurity

“Job security is very low and workers face victimisation from employers if they make complaints,” said Dana.

“So the PSM set up the hotline to create an alternative channel to take up issues in their workplace.

“When we get a complaint we will write to the Labour Office about the matter without revealing the identity of the worker making the complaint. We protect the worker and push the Labour Office to visit the workplace and investigate the employer.”

Dana said that the PSM’s labour bureau gets 20‒30 complaints a month through the hotline.

“In some cases, the worker does not want to lodge a complaint but just needs our advice on their rights.”

Most of the complaints are from security workers or cleaners, because they are the most victimised workers and their contribution to development is undervalued, Dana said.


Most of these jobs were part of the public service until the privatisation carried out under Prime Minister Mohamed Mahathir’s government in the late 1990s.

“Security workers are usually working 12 hours a day. The legal working day is eight hours so they should be paid overtime for four hours. Most of them are also made to work seven days in most weeks and get very few rest days. Only 1 out of 10 security subcontractor employers give their workers a rest day.

“They have to work on public holidays also, so each month they should be paid a lot of overtime rates, but this is the problem because the employers are paying them in monthly lump sums that do not include all the overtime payments they should get.

“If a security worker works 30 days a month, they should get RM3500 [A$1120], but instead they are getting paid only RM1800 [A$570] to RM2200 [A$700].

“If the workers want to claim the wages they are being cheated of they have to file a complaint with the Labour Office, but they are scared to do this because they are afraid their will lose their jobs or be transferred to some far away workplace, which is the most common employer action against a worker who lodges a complaint against them.

“So we encourage the workers to make a group claim so that the employer cannot victimise any individual worker.”

Dana said the PSM has won many cases for security workers and cleaners, but each case can take two to three years to resolve.

In addition, contract workers face greater hardship when they stop working because of age or redundancy. A cleaner who works for a hospital for 20 years but is on a three-year contract will not get termination payments for working 20 years.

The PSM is campaigning to abolish the labour contract system, not only because it is bad for workers and a source of corruption.

“When governments are outsourcing labour, the subcontracting [employer] makes a profit and government officials get illegal commissions," said Dana. "Subcontracting is given to friends or family members of senior officials. It is not a transparent process.”

Migrant workers

According to a 2022 study by the International Organization for Migration, up to a third of the Malaysian workforce are migrant workers, but few have taken advantage of the hotline, said Dana. She only knows of one complaint from a migrant worker that came through the hotline, which they successfully resolved.

“The employers threaten migrant workers if they complain and the unity between migrant and local workers is also quite low. Many migrant workers are frightened of their employers, especially if they don’t have documentation.

“So migrant workers face extra challenges, but we will take up their cases if they contact us on the hotline.”

Minimum wage campaign

The PSM also led the campaign from 2002 for a minimum wage, which was finally won in 2012. It was set then at RM900 (A$290) a month, starting in January 2013.

“It is reviewed every two years and was increased to RM1500 [A$480] in May 2022, but we are still receiving complaints from workers who are not yet receiving this. Out of every 20 complaints we get, two or three will be that they are being paid less than the minimum wage.”

On May Day this year, the government announced a 13% pay rise for public servants, but there was no wage rise for workers in the private sector and the minimum wage is still under review, said Dana. The government says it is having discussions with employer organisations before announcing any change to the minimum wage.

“There is a political agenda here. Most of the public servants are from the Malay community and that is where the government is trying to get more support.”

Dana, who began her political activism at university, is looking forward to exchanging experiences and ideas with activists from six continents participating in Ecosocialism 2024.

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