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Women Workers in Malaysia: A Country Report

by Ganambal Mosses, Irene Xavier

According to official reports, Malaysia has been enjoying a robust economy since 1987 with an average growth of over 8% per annum. The government has also claimed that inflation rates have been kept at check at the rates of less than 4% per annum for the last 20 years. This success has been attributed to the economic policy of industralisation that is geared towards export and intensive labour production. As a result the countries GDP share has been increasing in the manufacturing sector while the agriculture sector's share has been declining.

Together with the economic growth employment rates too have been increasing to a situation of full employment in 1996. This has led to a greater import of foreign labour for the plantation sector, for house work, construction industry as well as for manufacturing.

In the last decade the country has increasingly liberalised its economy. Many of the basic services that had been in the public sector has been privitised. In the manufacturing sector it is now the norm to sub-contract some of the production processes to smaller factories. In this way the large factories have been more cost-effective and thus they have not been retrenching workers on the scale prior to 1987. Small factories have managed with smaller labour force doing the work sub-contracted to them by a number of bigger factories.

What has all this meant for the workers in the country? Wages and household incomes have increased. However the increase has been uneven between those who have capital and those who do not; between the professionals and the non- professionals workers; between local and foreign workers; and between those in the higher and lower rungs in the hierarchy in the work force.

In addition the higher growth rates have not necessarily benefited all the workers. Plantation Workers are facing a grimmer future. With the expansion of the plantation industry in East Malaysia in addition to the displacement of indigenous communities, the plantains in West Malaysia are fast closing down leading to retrenchment and eviction.

The liberalisation has in some benefited women in the country in the passing of the Domestic Violence Act, 1994 and a review of all policies and laws that discriminate against women that has been agreed by the government. The Occupational Safety and Health Act was also passed in 1994. This has extended the space for workers to ensure a safer working environment. Yet the benefits to workers have been minimal.


Parallel to the economic growth in Malaysia, the total of about 5.6 million in employment in 1985 increased to 7.9 million in 1995. The employment share in the manufacturing increased from 15.5% in 1980 to 25% in 1995 and in the agricultural sector it declined from 37.2% to 18% in the same period. The construction sector's percentage share of employment also increased from 5.6% to 8.3% in the same period. Official reports clamed that the buoyant economy resulted in the demand for labour exceeding domestic supply, triggering a wage increase that outstripped labour productivity. Real wages they claim has increased by 7.1% while productivity has only risen by 3.9%. However their figure are based on figures from Collective Agreements signed. This covers only 10% of the labour in the country which is organized. Unionists also argue that an increase in productivity is not related to workers input only but also other factors such as the machinery used.

The employers and the government have claimed that wage increases have far outstripped productivity and have introduced a framework for national wage reform. This framework was agreed to by the National Advisory council (NLAC) in August, 1996. The NLAC is the nations highest tripartite forum on labour matters. The reform was intended to reduce the apparent gap between wage increase and productivity. In 1996 there are fewer industrial disputes in the first half of 1997. However the labour productivity rate was only lower than wage increase in 1992 and the first seven months of 1997. This low productivity can be related to the lower demand for electronics products in this period.

The slowdown experienced in the electronics industry brought about the closure of factories and retrenchment of workers. The textile and plantation industries are downscaling and relocating as well. In Penang alone, 13 factories have closed down , 2 have trimmed operations and 5 plantations have closed down in the period January - September, 1996. The retrenchment included 500-600 foreign workers as well.

Unionised labour

In 1995 less than 10% of the labour force was unionised. In 1991, the unionisation rate was less than 10%.

In addition to the low rates of unionisation ,organised labour has become more fragmented. General unions are not allowed by law. Starting from one Federation of trade unions in the 1950s we have today 3 trade union federations. However all these federations have not substantially increased trade union membership nor present more progressive ideologies. They all hold similar ideological positions.

Workers rights and government policies

The major labour legislation's are as follows:

The Employment Act, 1995 which regulates minimum standards of work.

The Social Security Act, 1969 which provides social security and welfare for injured workers and for some occupational illnesses.

The Employees Provident Act, 1951 which has set up a provident fund for the workers.

The Industrial relation Act, 1967 which regulates disputes of unionised workers and their employers.

The Trade Union Act, 1959 which regulates the registration and function of the trade union including calling for strikes, pickets and other industrial action.

The organisation of workers is tightly regulated. Malaysian workers generally do not see the benefits of belonging to a trade union. They are even more vary of any industrial action. Most of them have not participated or even seen workers picketing or going on strike.

Workers also are constrained by other non-democratic laws which allow for detention without trial, strict stipulation which tamper with freedom of speech, publication or assembly. These restrictions have kept labour generally compliant. With the new increase in household income workers are fast developing a materialistic and consumerist culture.

Consequently there is a breed of Malaysian workers many of whom ate women who find concepts of struggle for their rights, organising for better working conditions or being committed to spending their time or resources on things which do not bring monetary returns or pleasure as unattractive. This has hampered the work of people who have tried to organise the Malaysian workers.


The ratio of male to female is equal in Malaysia according to the 1991 census. While about 48% of women are in the working age population of 15 - 64 years, women constitute only about one third of the labour force. Nonetheless, the female participation in labour has increased from 37.2% in 1970 to 47.1% in 1995. This may of course be much lower than the actual participation of women because of underreporting, particularly in the informal sector.

Reflecting the structural transformation of the Malaysian economy in the last two and half decades, 30.1 of working women were involved in manufacturing and 15.9% in the traditional economy of agriculture, forestry, livestock and fishing in 1995. At the same time women reflecting their status in the economy are concentrated in the lower rungs of the hierarchy in the workplace.

Although the percentage of women in the professional, technical and related fields is more than men because of the high proportion of women in the large teaching , nursing and secretarial force in the country. Even in the teaching profession where more than 70% are women, less than 20% of all school principals and officials are women.

Women continue to fit the traditional perception of them as careers and naturers. They are nurses rather than doctors, teachers rather than engineers. The lower female participation in the technical fields is reflected in the lower enrollment in technical schools. With the corporatisation of the public universities, tuition fees in certain disciplines will more than double the present rates and we can expect families choosing their sons over their daughters to send for tertiary education.

In the manufacturing industries , women formed the majority in the top three sectors as they accounted for 55.5% in electronics, 56.8% in textiles and 89.5% in clothing (ILO 1996:6). This is because of the belief that women have nimble fingers and are patient and docile , suited for the tedious and relatively unskilled work . Another reason is that there is a large percentage of foreign ownership in these industries and many are in the export processing zones and these employers want unorganised labour. Therefore they have a preference for women who tend to be unorganised.

Protection and rights for women under the law

The Employment Act, 1995 spells out the following provisions for women:

* Prohibition from night work but which can be overruled by the Director General of Labour. Most employers get this ruling from the Director general almost upon application

* Women workers in the private sector are given 90 days maternity leave while those in the public sector are given 42 days maternity leave. All are given leave for 5 surviving children. There also provisions prohibiting an employer from dismissing a women when she is pregnant or when on maternity leave.

* Although a wife's income tax can be assessed separately, she is not given any relief for maintenance of children. This affects many single female parents.

* Though there is no specific law for sexual harassment, the case law has set a precedence for such cases. However without active trade union support most women will find it difficult to pursue such a course of action against their harassers.

Foreign Workers

In October 1996, it was reported that there was a total of 449,565 legal foreign workers in Malaysia (NST 25 October 1996).The majority came from Indonesia and the manufacturing sector absorbed the largest number of foreign workers. A breakdown of the workers according to sector is as follows:
Factory Workers204,614


However the estimates do not include the large number of illegal foreign workers in the country. Sources s suggest that there are between 1 to 2 million foreign workers in the country. Their problems include:

* abuse of their right to freedom of movement. They are often harassed by police and immigration officials and arrested and detained if their papers are not with them

* Abuse of detained foreign workers while in detention leading to deaths from causes which could have been easily prevented such as beriberi.

* Physical and sexual abuse by their employers and agents and other government personnel.

* Wage discrimination , non-payment, poor living and working condition.

Sahabat Wanita's Efforts in Organising Women Workers

Sahabat Wanita (SW) has concentrated in last few years on building worker activists at the factory and community level. Conditions in the country have not been very conducive for mass organisation expect in isolated instances. Thus in such a period we have put our resources in consolidating our work. The economic boom has also made it difficult for NGO in the country to obtain funds from foreign donor agencies. Subsequently we have been forced to actively seek out alternative funding sources. We have moved into income generating activity which exhausts our little resources.

However we are pleased to report that efforts to build women workers leader is bearing fruit. This is an important contribution to the women workers movement in this moment of time.

(The above article are excerpts from the paper presented at CAW's regional consultation meeting in Nepal, in November 1997.)

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