To many trade union leaders, their members and employers, the ongoing fracas over National Union of Bank Employees’s (NUBE) claims and counterclaims by Maybank Non-Executive Employees Union (Mayneu) reveals apparent cracks in the facade of speaking-with-one-voice cohesion. Such episodes widen rather than narrow the gulf that will eagerly be taken advantage of by gleeful “outsiders”.
As The Malaysian Reserve cautiously notes, the attributable strides made by non-executive employees of the country’s largest bank in legal manoeuvres over the past several months augur well for the future proliferation of independently-run establishments catering to smaller but more “centric” membership interests.
The resolve by Malayan Banking Bhd’s (Maybank) inhouse union — Mayneu — to have greater self-determination through eventual recognition and acceptance has hit a raw nerve in the umbrella bank employees’ union, NUBE.
What is now patently feared is that the growing rift between the 50-year-old bank union and the newborn Mayneu could trigger off the creation of even more “splinter” set-ups throughout the industry.
Mayneu is way ahead in mileage and some moraleboosting gains, but NUBE is relying entirely and conclusively on the “letter of the law” that in this case constitutes Article 1 and Article 6 of the Malayan Commercial Banks Association (MCBA) and NUBE collective agreement or CA.
On Feb 16, the stand was made perfectly clear by Mayneu president Wan Ahmad Nazrul about the future of his new fledgling organisation.
In a strongly-worded statement, he spelt out his nascent establishment’s raison d’etre, its defence and objectives.
“Firstly, Article 6 of the CA between the Malayan Commercial Bank’s Association and NUBE recognises the union as the sole negotiating body in respect of the employees. However, it does not state that employees cannot seek alternative membership.”
Furthermore, Article 10(1)(1) of the Federal Constitution states all citizens have the right to form an association and therefore as employees of Maybank, it is the constitutional right to form a union.
“NUBE’s claim that employees in the banking industry cannot seek alternative membership is a clear infringement of our rights,” Wan Ahmad said.
His rival in the dispute — J Solomon, general secretary of NUBE — is in no mood to either concede defeat or compromise his members’ stand.
In a statement released to The Malaysian Reserve on Feb 26, he made his feelings abundantly clear: “I appreciate your newspaper’s initiative to contact the union for comments, even as those provided by the Mayneu representative are factually incorrect.”
In his relatively shorter but acerbic retort, the NUBE leader said: ”We have proof that the in-house union is fully sponsored and supported by the employer. That was our basis for lodging a complaint with Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.” To this, Wan Ahmad has said that “The Maybank union was initiated by the members and we never received any assistance from our employer.”
To a question on Wan Ahmad’s claim that the establishment of Mayneu had not indeed violated any law or human rights, as the matter had been raised and cleared by an august body such as the Malaysian Commission of Human Rights, Solomon said: “This is indeed interesting and we intend to pursue the matter with the Commission. It is our contention that the Commission is not conferred with the due authority to make such a decision.”
“The establishment of Mayneu is clearly in violation of Section 12 of the Trade Union Act 1959. We have written to the Commission and it will be interesting to see what their comments will be on our case.”
In the convoluted fabric of past union struggles and aspirations, eg the failed efforts of electronic workers to form a national union, the clamour by Maybank’s in-house union has become a reminiscent cause celebre. Its registration has become a bone of contention, one that is being vigorously challenged by NUBE, which views the whole process as an act of “sabotage”.
Veteran private sector trade union leader and erstwhile secretary general of Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), (the country’s sole umbrella body for private sector representation) G Rajasekaran, has been following the ongoing dispute with a keen eye on major bones of contention — They are, as cited by the national bank union, Article 1 and 6 of the MCBA-NUBE CA.
“Article 6 of the agreement specifies the parties who have the right to collectively bargain.
Registration of a trade union by the director general of trade unions (DGTU) cannot be restricted by this Article.
Registration under the Trade Unions Act, 1959 and collective bargaining rights under the Industrial Relations Act, 1967 are two distinctly different issues.
"It would have been better to question the wisdom of the DGTU under Section 15 (2) of the Trade Unions Act in approving the application of an in-house union, despite the existence of an industrial union. There is much more the DGTU can and should have done,” Rajasekaran said.
Mr Rajasekaran said the existence of a CA with specific provisions according collective bargaining rights to NUBE to represent all employees of MCBA members, which includes Maybank, requires of the DGTU that he or she carries out an indepth investigation before considering the application for another union within Maybank.
The question is — was it done?
NUBE has been incensed, with some justification, only because it knows all too well what the loss of membership to its financial coffers would mean in the future.
More significantly, that its traditional sway and way forward would become more stymied, as other national body members begin rethinking their forsworn commitment to an overall umbrella body.
Wan Ahmad has already set off alarm bells: ”AmBank (M) Bhd has their own union, and soon another bank will come up with one, although I cannot disclose which bank it is.”
But, is this the right thing to do?S olomon does not think so, but Wan Ahmad’s mind is already made up, going so far as to say NUBE’s CA with MCBA “was no longer relevant”.
Both sides have begun charting a course of action and counteraction in earnest, and in the process, have sought the “support” of a variety of powerful decision-makers and authorities — Human Resource Ministry, Department of Trade Union Affairs and the courts.
In one of its in-house statements, NUBE has alleged that Mayneu’s claim that it will get better benefits when it negotiates as an in-house union is “deceiving”.
This scepticism does hold water to a certain extent, given that the smaller the representation (especially without any pervasive national body protection) the greater the vulnerability to indiscriminate employer dictates, strong-arm tactics and “generous” persuasions.
“The primary objective for the formation of the in-house union is to secure better wages, benefits and working conditions. Maybank being the largest bank and a government-linked company,” Wan Ahmad said.
“Benefits negotiated by the national union is uniform. Smaller banks’ interests and their affordability need to be considered and as such this kind of arrangement is not fair to employees employed by much larger banks whose responsibilities are accordingly higher.”
For example, a teller in Maybank may handle an average of 100 customers a day, compared to a teller in a smaller bank that handles only about 10 customers a day.
“Is it fair for both the tellers to receive the same wages and benefits?” Wan Ahmad asked.
Surely, such employees need to rethink their patent conditions of service as well as their future stake in the company.
Wanting a larger slice of the “asset size and market share” of the largest bank in the country that is also aiming to be the dominant lender in South-East Asia in 2015 is not altogether an unfair nor unrealistic expectation.
The ugly truth however is that many unions in Malaysia appear to have “missed the boat.” With declining membership, and a weaker voice in the management of their own affairs, nomenclature however unambiguous really does not matter much.
In the light of such unfolding scenarios on the labour scene, serious questions are often being raised by some veteran industrial observers, labour academicians and the occasional labour writer about the future direction of not just national unions, but also those potentially
promising small start-ups. The bigger picture however is this. Membership in large unions is already dwindling or plain static, and therefore efficacy at the negotiating table may well be called into question even as employees fight for better wages in the midst of inflationary pressures. But, can small unions ever hope to get their way in the end?
There is a case for the setting up of in-house unions, no doubt about that. But, honestly speaking, is their unchartered future all that bright? How do we lend credence to such a claim, when larger more powerful players in the industry, have for decades not necessarily been on a winning streak?
This is the first of a two-part article on trade unions in Malaysia. The final part will be published on Friday, April 6.