Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have had the option to work from home and practise social distancing. Healthcare and hospital workers, however, don't have that option.
Their work has been invaluable in keeping all of us safe, so it goes without saying that they deserve adequate payment and good working conditions.
Despite the praise and appreciation heaped upon these workers, activists calling for better working conditions for hospital cleaners were arrested, detained overnight, and now face charges.
Amnesty International Malaysia stands in support with these protestors, as well as with healthcare workers. Here we explain the facts of the arrest, how this affects healthcare workers, and how you can help.
Who were the people arrested and why?
M Sarasvathy, L Danaletchumy, V Santhiran, P Jothi, and C Subramaniam Raja are five activists who participated in a peaceful picket in front of Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun (HRPB), Ipoh on 2 June 2020. M Sarasvathy is also the Executive Secretary of the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services (NUWHSAS).
The activists were arrested, remanded overnight, and subsequently charged for violating the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO), contrary to the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (Measures within the Infected Local Areas) Regulations 2020.
Each of the activists now faces a fine of up to RM1,000 or six months' imprisonment or both.
The activists also allege mistreatment at the hands of the police during the arrest and in lockup, claiming:
- Verbal abuse by police officers;
- Being forced to change into lockup attire with the door open;
- Not being given water for their personal medication.
But there was a pandemic. Maybe it's fair that they are punished for gathering?
This is a disproportionately harsh response to a peaceful picket that consisted of less than 20 individuals, all of whom wore masks, observed social distancing guidelines, and had their temperatures checked.
Pickets are an essential component to the right of freedom of association and assembly as enshrined in international law; restrictions on these rights during health emergencies must be necessary and proportionate to the aims of addressing the emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as an excuse to violate the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
It's also important to note that the fine is particularly disproportionate, considering that they were protesting low wages. This fine would be over 80% of their monthly salary.
The government should be protecting frontline workers, not punishing them for asking for better working conditions.
Why are they protesting / what are their allegations?
According to NUWHSAS, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cleaners did not have access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) when they cleaned COVID-19 wards and facilities. Edgenta UEMS — the company currently sub-contracted to hire cleaners for the hospital — had also failed to provide them with enough face masks and gloves.
Since Edgenta UEMS has refused to honour the previous collective agreement, the hospital workers were also protesting the lack of annual increase in wages, lack of increase in sick leave and annual leave according to working seniority, and reduced number of paid public holidays.
Furthermore, the union has alleged that Edgenta UEMS has been targeting active union members by:
- Changing the working hours and shifts of workers active in the union;
- Arbitrarily transferring union members to hospitals far from their residence;
- Forbidding union-related discussion between union worksite committees and workers, even during break times;
- Disallowing union members from working overtime to increase their earnings;
- Intimidating and threatening union members with disciplinary action.
The company released a public statement on 3 June 2020 denying the above allegations including their alleged failure in providing PPE and union-busting activity. Legal representatives of the union still stand by their original allegations.
Why are unions important?
Workers' unions are important because it is one of the only ways workers can make themselves heard and demand for better employment benefits and working conditions; exercising their collective power so they are not taken advantage of.
This is particularly important considering the great inequality in bargaining power between rich and influential companies as opposed to minimum wage earning individual workers.
Why do government hospital cleaners need a union?
In this case, cleaners in Malaysian government hospitals are actually contract workers, hired by private companies. These companies are sub-contracted by concessionaires — the holders of a grant or concession — that were awarded government contracts for hospital support services.
As contract workers, cleaners are often only paid the bare minimum monthly wage of RM1,200 and are not entitled to receive benefits such as annual pay rises, more than 11 days of paid public holidays, bonuses, and compensation if they are ever laid off.
The constant change of contracts also often leaves cleaners in an unstable position; new contractors can revise and reduce benefits as well as choose not to recognise working seniority.
In 2016, NUWHSAS was revived by a group of mostly women hospital cleaners to negotiate demands with their employer. They developed a collective agreement of 43 demands, including increased starting wages and a yearly increment. In October 2019, a new collective agreement of 38 demands was agreed upon with the employer, laying out the terms and conditions of the contract cleaners' employment. This negotiation was documented in Minxi Chua and Asyraf Abdul Samad’s 2019 documentary, Bila Kami Bersatu.
However, before the agreement was to take effect in January 2020, the sub-contract was sold off to a different company: Edgenta UEMS. According to media reports, Edgenta UEMS apparently refuses to recognise the union and therefore does not recognise the initial collective agreement, rendering it null and void.
Edgenta UEMS has neither confirmed nor denied their refusal to recognise the union, but said the claim of union-busting is the subject of a pending trade dispute case under the Industrial Relations Act Section 18. Court proceedings have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is the life of a government hospital cleaner like?
As New Naratif highlighted, "After pension and social security deductions, cleaners' average take-home pay is usually closer to RM1,000 (USD233) — in a country where the estimated living wage is nearly three times that, or RM2,700 (USD633) a month for a single person.
"Many cleaners, however, must also support families on their meagre salary. [Many are] single mothers, widows, or divorcees working as cleaners to provide for their children. Some are elderly, with only a secondary school education. Others work two to three other jobs in order to make ends meet."
Amnesty International Malaysia spoke to a cleaner whose salary was RM1,200 after more than two decades working as a government hospital cleaner. While cleaners in the union often feel intimidated and concerned about the consequences of being in the union, they feel that it is necessary to stand up for themselves and each other.
"Kalau kita senyap, kita tak akan dapat hak kita (If we are quiet, we will not get our rights)," one cleaner said.
What does 'union-busting' mean? How does it impact the cleaners?
The right to join unions is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This means that it is an inherent human right that all who work are entitled to join a union.
'Union-busting' refers to the actions intended to disrupt or prevent the formation of workers' union. As mentioned above, Edgenta UEMS allegedly undertook a series of union-busting activities, including threatening union members with disciplinary action and prohibiting union-related discussion at the workplace.
According to a media report by New Naratif, cleaners say they have been harassed and bullied by their supervisors:
Zaitun*, a cleaner at Ipoh Hospital, spoke of the verbal and mental abuse she and her colleagues endure on a daily basis: "They scream at us: get out! Hey, you, get out! They speak to us without any respect. One time, they even shocked the staff nurses with their screaming. The nurses all ran towards us, thinking that there was a fight going on. But that's just how they talk to us. Hey, you, get out!"
However, perhaps the worst forms of alleged abuse are directed towards cleaners who are active in the union. "I can't go anywhere," Zaitun tells New Naratif.
"The supervisors follow me around; they take photos of me. They change my [work] location around all the time. I'm not allowed to mix with other people. But the worst thing was what happened after Hari Raya. My locker was broken into over the holiday. They opened it up and took all my equipment out, gloves, masks, plastic bags. I think they were looking for forms, because they know I'm a member of the union. But they didn't find anything."
What can I do to help?
You can send an e-mail before 18 September 2020 to the office of Attorney-General Tan Sri Datuk Sri Idrus Harun calling for them to:
- Drop all charges against the five members, as the charges are contrary to international human rights law and carry penalties that will disproportionately affect this group;
- Investigate allegations against the company and ensure that all labour laws are respected and enforced, especially the inadequate supply of personal protective equipment for COVID-19 and the intimidation of workers active in the union.
Click here to send the e-mail. Thank you for your support!
This story is the personal opinion of the writer/organisation. You too can submit a story as a SAYS reader by emailing us at [email protected]