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Witness #14 | Sarasvathy

I am Sarasvathy, Executive Secretary of the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services. I started working with workers in the 1990s at the height of privatisation. I see many impacts of privatisation of women workers, especially the B40 [i.e. the bottom 40% in terms of income in Malaysia] or working-class women from then till now. Since the privatisation of government hospital support and allied services in the mid 1990s, all cleaners who previously worked directly under the Government became contract workers of contractors appointed by the Ministry of Health. 

We have about 50,000 cleaners in government hospitals and clinics nationwide, and more than 85% are women workers. This kind of work is dominated by women because people think that cleaning is a woman’s job. In general, the workers are vulnerable in many ways. They are mostly B40 women, single mothers, and sole breadwinners; and they have had less formal education. 

They are exploited and their rights are denied due to the fixed-term contract system which does not guarantee job security. These concessionaire companies outsource the cleaning services to subcontractors for two years. This causes the subcontractors to offer work contracts for periods of six months, one year, and two years, to the workers. Every time the contractor offers a work contract, they treat the worker as a new employee.  The workers are denied their employment rights such as yearly bonus, annual leave, salary increment and employee termination layoff benefits. They even cannot apply for loans as they are contract workers. 

This cycle continues every one or two years — the workers are in a peculiar situation, where they have worked continuously in the same hospital doing the same tasks, but are offered a new employment contract after specific periods without a break in their service. It is clear that the nature of the job is a permanent employment but the concessionaire companies have 'dressed up' the job as a seasonal job. This is a modern slavery system.

This situation affects all workers; however, women workers are particularly vulnerable because they become bonded labourers. There are cleaners who have worked for more than 20 years and their salaries are stuck at minimum wage and they have been given only eight days of annual leave. For example, by the 10th of every month they have no money to fill petrol, pay their children’s school fees, and pay medical fees. They have to borrow money from their employer or relatives to pay for these expenses, and repay the debts on the next pay day. It becomes a cycle of debt which they can’t get away from.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, in the year 2020, Malaysia’s national poverty line was RM2,208 in income per month. Cleaners are forced to live with a minimum wage of RM1,200, and they live in debt and poverty. The ‘Families on the Edge’ study jointly commissioned by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in May 2020 shows more households headed by females are among B20 [i.e. the bottom 20% in terms of income in Malaysia] households at the national level. 

In addition, the ‘State of Households 2018: Different Realities’ report launched by Khazanah Research Institute in October 2018 shows that between 2014 and 2016, households with monthly incomes below RM5,000 were forced to cut back on consumption of food despite spending more money on it. 

Bank Negara Malaysia’s Financial Capability and Inclusion Survey 2015 shows three in four Malaysians find it a challenge to raise RM1,000 of immediate cash money for emergencies; and about one in three Malaysians can only cover a week’s worth of expenses at most, should they lose their source of income. The 'Families on the Edge’ study states that among female heads of households, only five in 100 have enough savings to last more than three months. Meanwhile, about two in five children, especially children from female-headed households, have insufficient equipment to enable e-learning.  

Out of five concessionaire companies, four are Government-linked companies (GLCs). They should be role models in protecting worker’s rights, but they are also the ones that started the contract system in the support service sector of the government hospitals.

This practice of contracting and subcontracting permanent and long-term work is wrong in law, as it is in violation of the Employment Act 1955. It is illegal and ultra vires the Federal Constitution of the country which guarantees the Right to Livelihood under its article 5(1).

For the past 30 years, I have been defending women workers’ rights. Working with the union I face a number of harassments from employers and also the police. Employers would tarnish my reputation by saying to the workers that I am not a trustable person, and warn workers of interacting with me, like I am a criminal. At the same time, when I comment on the violation of women workers, employers will try to silence me with legal action. They have used the news report in which I commented about union busting in court, and wanted the court to give an order to stop me from talking about union busting in public. This affected our advocacy work extremely.

When we stand together with the women workers and protest with them, authorities arrest us, and mistreat us in the lock-up. I have been to many protests with women workers in the past 30 years — at least half were met with harassment by the police. In a recent protest that we organised in Hospital Ipoh to protest the lack of protection for hospital cleaners during the COVID-19 pandemic, four other union activists and I were arrested by the police. We were forced into one ‘Black Maria’ [vehicle] with no social distancing, we were handcuffed, and the police shouted at us, “Hey! Stop making noise. Bitch. As noisy as an animal. Sit quietly.” We were forced to change to the lock-up attire while the changing room door was left open; one of the women union activists is a diabetes patient but she was not given water to take her medicine; we were forced to bathe using a small, dirty towel; and one of the policemen used abusive words to threaten us.

This is all because we are defending women workers’ rights, and they think they can bully us. 

B40 women workers are one of the most vulnerable groups in Malaysia, who have suffered the most. In the cleaning industry, we can see how much they suffer. I hope we can abolish the contract system to protect our sisters, and absorb them back as government workers, to have better protection. 

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