The Cement Industry Employees Union (CIEU), Malayan Technical Services Union (MTSU), Malay Forest Officers Union (MFOU), PKNS Employees Union (PKNS), Sabah Timber Industry Employees Union (STIEU), Timber Employees Union of Peninsula Malaysia (TEUPM), Timber Industry Employees Union of Sarawak (TIEUS), Union of Employees in the Construction Industry (UECI) and Union of Forestry Employees of Sarawak (UFES) have called on the government and employers to do more to protect workers as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put workers’ lives at risk.
The Malaysian trade unions are affiliated to the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI).
“Tomorrow is International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD), a day which the global labour movement observes to commemorate workers who have died on the job or as a result of occupational diseases”, said Samuel Devadasan, Chairperson of the BWI Malaysian Liaison Council (BWI-MLC) and General Secretary of the Malayan Technical Services Union (MTSU).
The theme for BWI’s IWMD campaign this year is “Protect workers. Stop COVID-19.” The unions said that COVID-19 represents the most significant threat to workers’ health and safety in recent years. BWI’s primary advice to workers worldwide has been to: wash hands, wear a mask and keep distance.
“We recognise, however, that for many workers this simple advice is simply not practicable. This is especially the case for migrant workers, whether documented or undocumented, who live in closed quarters and cannot afford to access safety materials or hygienic supplies. More must be done to ensure that COVID-19 does not spread amongst those communities.”
“We applaud the government’s decision to implement the Movement Control Order. However, we are concerned at the scale of exemptions that have been granted by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry for companies to operate that are not essential services.”
“We are particularly concerned that more than 200 companies in the timber industries in Peninsula Malaysia and Sarawak have been given exemptions, and many appear to be acting in violation of those exemptions. We have previously called for mandatory testing for workers on all exempted sites, but there has been no follow-up by MITI.”
“Many workers at these sites have indicated their concern to us over lax safety practices. However, since they cannot survive without income, they are compelled to work in spite of the risk. No worker should have to be put in these circumstances; the right to refuse work that workers consider unsafe is a fundamental one.”
The unions have also been amongst those that have called for the government to recognise COVID-19 as an occupational disease to better protect workers’ safety.
“Employers have a duty in law to ensure a safe working environment. Explicitly highlighting COVID-19 as an occupational disease will mean that employers would be obligated to ensure that safe practices relevant to such a threat are in place, and they can be punished for failing to do so.”
Highlighting the high rate of accidents in the BWI sectors of construction and wood and forestry in Malaysia, Devadasan said that the post-COVID-19 world needs to be one that puts workers’ safety first. “In construction, for example, Malaysia’s fatality rate is ten times that of the United Kingdom. It is no surprise, since this is an industry where union penetration and workers’ voice are weak.”
“Today our challenge is to protect workers and stop COVID-19. We must ensure that when life returns to normal, workers will continue to be protected so they can live with dignity and work safely.”