ASEAN Labour Ministers Meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday  should send a fact-finding mission to Myanmar on the controversial issue of forced labour

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya, Monday): The Human Resources Minister, Datuk Dr. Fong Chan Onn should withdraw and apologise for his insinuation that the MTUC and workers are unpatriotic if they proceed with the plan to picket against the EPF management over a raft of EPF grievances and discontents, claiming that it would “tarnish the image of the country”.

Fong said: “It is important for MTUC to maintain the pride of the nation and the welfare of the people as we will be hosting a meeting which will be attended by ministers from Japan, South Korea and China, among others.”

Is Fong suggesting that the MTUC will not be unpatriotic or tarnishing the image of the country if it postpones the picketting against the EPF to the following week after the ASEAN Labour Ministers’ meeting?

This is very childish talk, as if the ASEAN Labour Ministers are strangers to robust worker actions in protest against unfair labour practices.  In fact, MTUC’s picketting against the EPF, which  unintentionally coincided  with the ASEAN Labour Ministers’ Meeting, has also its positive aspect - to send a message to ASEAN Labour Ministers on behalf of all workers in ASEAN that ASEAN governments should be more serious in looking after the legitimate rights and interests of the workers.

If Fong is seriously concerned about the nation’s image during the ASEAN Labour Ministers’ Meeting in Kuala Lumpur, he should have intervened to resolve the EPF disputes, one of which  is over  the government contempt for the  trade union movement and the law, unilaterally, unlawfully and without consultation imposing  a 2% cut in the employees’ EPF contribution from April 1, 2001 when no order from the Finance Minister gazetting the reduction had ever been made before May 1.

What workers and trade unionists in Malaysia are more concerned about the ASEAN Labour Ministers’ Meeting is Fong’s performance as host Minister, whether Malaysia is prepared to play a major  role as host country to rally the other ASEAN members to pressure the Myanmese military junta to end forced labour and repression of trade unionists in Burma.

Myanmar's defiance of international laws against forced labour has adversely affected the other ASEAN nations.

For instance, the International Labour Organisation  (ILO) had informed ASEAN  that the grouping is excluded from participating in and benefiting from ILO technical cooperation and assistance programmes, with the  ILO  discontinuing  its commitment to support the implementation of two priority ASEAN projects on labour -- on human resources development planning and industrial relations.

Last November,  the ILO  issued its unprecedented call for member states to consider sanctions against Myanmar  over its use of forced labour.

In February this year, the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in a 300-page report documented  recent cases in which children as young as 10 have been forced to carry munitions and military supplies. Many cases also "involve torture, rape, murder and violence", the report says. One source with close ties to the Burmese opposition says: "All of the things the ILO has been complaining about have intensified."

The 15th ASEAN Labour Ministers Meeting starting in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday should ask for a  progress report  by the Myanmese Labour Minister on the  decree  issued last October by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to  abolish forced labour and should consider  sending a fact-finding mission to Myanmar on the forced labour question.

Fong’s insinuation about the patriotism and loyalty of MTUC and the workers if they proceed with the picketing against the EPF on Saturday is not only misplaced, but  highly objectionable and the Minister should withdraw and apologise for it without any conditions.

As Human Resources Minister, Fong should be faulted for failing to help safeguard the interests of the 9.7 million EPF contributors to ensure the safety and quality of their RM185 billion EPF funds and to persuade the  EPF management to adopt a new  policy of accountability and transparency to address the various EPF scandals, like the all-time low dividend of six per cent declared last year, the over RM100 million losses in the Time dotCom initial public offer (IPO) bailout, the undemocratic and unlawful reduction of employees’ EPF contribution from 11% to 9%, an EPF Investment Panel and Board which are not accountable to the 9.7 million EPF contributors, etc.

Public complaints against the EPF are legion as reflected in the statistics from the Public Complaints Bureau yesterday that the police, the National Registration Department and the EPF top the list of government organisations as far as the number of  public complaints last year are concerned.

If Fong wishes to persuade  the MTUC to call off its picketting against the EPF on Saturday, he should ask the Cabinet to intervene on Wednesday by ensuring that  the EPF dividend last year is increased from 6% to 7%, restoration of the death and incapacitation benefits to the previous RM30,000, a revamp of the EPF Investment Panel and EPF Board to ensure meaningful participation by workers’ representatives,  a new EPF policy on accountability and transparency explaining the  use of EPF monies in bailouts of crony companies and individuals by releasing the full list of beneficiaries of the RM38  billion EPF loans and all the share transactions in the RM40 billion EPF equity porfolios.

*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman