SOUTH EAST ASIA SOLIDARITY TALK SERIES: OUTSOURCING OF SUPPORT SERVICE WORKERS IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR IN MALAYSIA & ITS CONSEQUENCES

By Danial Hakeem, JPKK

1. In your opinion how far the outsourcing in the public service has expanded in your country?

In Malaysia, the planning to outsource in public sector was announced in 1995, under the 7th National Malaysia Plan. then, outsourcing of support services in public sector started to be implemented in 1997, by our former PM Tun Mahathir, under the pretence of cost saving & efficiency in services. Since, there is about 150,000 workers who are cleaners, gardeners, and security guards, employed under the contract system. And these 150,000 workers are just from schools & hospitals. The outsourcing is implemented nationwide in all public building, meaning ministry buildings, courts, federal agencies building, and if we take into account the workers there the total number of workers who are outsourced amounted to 250, 000 workers. This huge figure still doesn’t include the contractually employed doctors & nurse so the figure could be much higher. And if we’re talking aboutt what used to be public services, lots of services have been outsourced for private interest, from the national railway company, the postal services, the national communication company, the national electricity grid, the distribution & generation is all within the private hands now.

2.            To what extend the outsourcing/ contract system affects workers’ rights?

The expectation initially, of privatization of support services is to reduce

Financial and administrative burdens of the government as well as improving the quality of services, the standards of services. The workers, in this case cleaners, are promised higher wages, which in the first year outsourcing is implemented for hospital cleaners, the wage did hike a little bit, but 20 years since the implementation. The quality of life of workers has deteriorated as a result of the privatization of these services.

In the more than 20 years since privatization, contract workers have lost many benefits, such as no annual salary increase, their wage is pegged to the national minimum wage rate of RM1200, and some contractors don’t even pay them according to that rate. Lots of them receive them late too, some worked months without salary, and sudden salary cut is also rampant. They enjoy, no sick leave, no medical leave, the responsibility to find replacement is on the workers, and they themselves have to pay the replacements! Overtime rate fraud, and their pension money which the private employers should contribute are often stolen. Many workers tried to voice out, but most were fired for whistle-blowing against employers at the federal agency incharge of human resources, but somehow in the process of filing complaints & cases, their identities could be identified, and the employers can find many way to fire them, from accusing them of poor work performance or transferring their work post far from their home. These problems are 1000x enhanced during the COVID pandemic, where cleaners only receive one pair of glove, one pair of mask per day to clean blood, vomits, and covid patients’ wastes. The employers’ detergents are watered down too to save cost, so the workers have to scrub harder to clean too. And the worst is, the govt don’t recognize them as front liners on the basis of their not government employee! So they don’t receive any special benefits, no special allowance. Only some doctors & cleaners did, some contract doctors & nurses don’t receive special allowances too.

If compared to the previous system, where these workers are the permanent direct employee of the public sector, these problems does not exist. They used get MC, dental benefits, uniform & shoe allowance, pension, annual wage increments etc.

CAPITALISM, AUSTERITY, PRECARITY & PRIVATIZATION

These precarity is very much impactful to the workers and their internal turmoil, there is huge rise of suicide case & attempts all across our country, and It is hardly surprising that people who live in such conditions – where their hours and pay can always be increased or decreased, and their terms of employment are extremely precarious – should experience anxiety, depression and hopelessness. And it may at first seem remarkable that so many workers have been persuaded to accept such deteriorating conditions as `natural’, and to look inward – into their brain chemistry or into their personal history – for the sources of any stress they may be feeling. This is an integral part of Capitalist Realism, a term coined by the late Marxist philosopher Mark Fisher, is perfectly encapsulated in Margaret Thatcher’s quote “There is no alternative, to capitalism, to neoliberalism”. And we all know Mahathir learns a lot from Thatcher & Reagan, and these internalization of self-responsibility, of blaming individuals over mental struggle & illness is rampant in neoliberal societies. This is the one of the goal of neoliberalism, it has been absorbed even into psychiatry. People who are admitted will often be treated on the basis of individuality, addiction is considered an individual problem now, the cause never gets addressed, why do people get addicted? Why do people find escapism in unhealthy manner? is it because the real world is becoming increasingly harsh? This is one of the main task of the left now, to re-politicize mental illness, as something related to neoliberalism & its harmful consequences of austerity. To urge the public and other relevant stakeholders, psychiatry dept included, to reframe it as a systemic problem. Accessibility to mental health services should also be publicized, should be addressed, as one of the right for the workers, especially after the global trauma of global pandemic.

3.            Is there any struggle happening in your country to addressing this issue? Or is your organization doing campaign or taking part in any initiative?

Yes, of course. We, JPKK, the government contract workers network, with the help of the hospital cleaners union, with the help of many local human rights NGOs have been fighting on this front. On our side, we identified all the stakeholders including the workers, the parliament members, and the ministries related to the issue. Due to COVID, some physical organization was done, physical interaction is limited, and we have been organizing through online means, we called for meetings & workshop to educate the workers about their rights, we called online meetings with parliament members & govt officials to lobby them, educate them about the austerity caused by outsourcing, and so far we managed to get 10% of the parliament members to support this issue. We’ve sent memorandums to the relevant ministries, asking to meet those personally bringing workers with us, but so far we were denied to meet them. Although physical meetings are limited, we still organized a small picket, in front of the parliament building back in Dec last year, urging the parliament members to notice the workers, because until now, they are not recognized as front liners. But there is a small win the other day, when the hospital cleaners are included for the first line of vaccination. And activists from the union & JPKK have been helping workers in counselling & giving legal advice to workers ffacing troubles, and looking for comrade lawyers who can help the workers on pro bono basis or on cheap legal fees. We’ve also done researches, two in fact, first is to prove that the contract system, that outsourcing is bad to all parties, workers, the place that they work, the government, the labor department, except  the cronies, and the 2nd research is still in works, focusing on cronyism in the tendering processes, how did it happen? Turns out that the New Economic Policy, introduced to bring up the Malay entrepreneurial class into existence, have been hijacked to benefit the few cronies, to reward political loyalty and such.

4.            How we can work together in the regional level to address this issue? Do you have any suggestion?

What we can suggest is first, is for each of our organization to connect thru social media, to promote each other’s struggle on social media, to share the news, the wins & the losses and the development together. I am sure we all have Facebook accounts of our organization at least, and workers here are quite active on Facebook, so that is one. These can always improve morale between us, solidarity & the best is we can learn from each other’s strategies, on how to deal with this problem. On our side, we have a petition which have gained 5000 signatures, I will share it in the chat box for others to take note too. Organizing across border is now feasible with the help of online means too, we’ve seen this tried on various other issues, on climate issues, there’s numerous online protests involving south east Asian to show solidarity with the protest to reform monarchy in Thailand, the spring revolution in Myanmar too, and JPKK also have organized a forum last year, inviting union activists from Indonesia, from Hong Kong, and from Philippines, and that discussion is fruitful. Another is not just publicizing the austerity caused by the outsourcing suffered by the workers, which is obvious, but again, to depoliticize the effects of austerity on mental health, to urge the public and other relevant stakeholders, psychiatry department included, to reframe it as a systemic problem. Accessibility to mental health services should also be publicized as one of the right for the workers, especially after the global trauma of global pandemic.

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