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Witness #15 | Tharani Kutty

My name is Tharani and I am in the EXCO of the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services. I have been working at this hospital for almost three years. Cleaner-workers are one of the most oppressed groups of workers, and are looked down upon. People think that this is a woman’s job, and it is a very dirty job. Not only is it looked down upon, but the right to freedoms of speech, assembly and association is also restricted.

We are always facing union-busting tactics from our employers. These include:

(1) Workers are threatened that if they join a union, they will lose their jobs, lose their overtime (OT) pay, face changes in their work shifts, and so on;

(2) Employees are not allowed to gather during breaks to discuss union matters (women would have to go home because they have ‘women’s obligations’, which makes union meetings difficult). If there is a gathering, the supervisor will disperse everyone;

(3) Workers are threatened, and told not to attend union activities and meetings; and

(4) Workers who lodge reports at the Department of Labour or Department of Industrial Relations are threatened and deceived by the supervisor, to get them to withdraw their cases.

These are only some of the union-busting examples; there are so many more that I would not be able to finish talking about them today.

As a transgender person and a union EXCO member, I too faced union-busting tactics by my employer. I started working in 2018. At that time, my employer knew I was a trans woman and gave me the women’s uniform. I also begin to participate actively in the union. But in 2019, after I started getting active in union activities, my gender started to be made into an issue. The UEMS [employer] supervisor forced me to cut my hair, and remove my earrings and necklace, on grounds that these got in the way of my work, and that men should look like men. 

But my long hair, earrings and necklace have never gotten in the way of my work, and I have always worked this way all this while. But, at that time, because there was a new contractor that came in, they wanted to get rid of the union, that was why they looked for trouble with me, forced me to cut my hair. The supervisor also said, if anyone joins the union, they would not be able to work under UEMS in 2020. At that time, I was very stressed.

In 2020, Edgenta UEMS fully took over the cleaning services contract. UEMS put even more pressure on me. I lodged a complaint at the Department of Labour and Department of Industrial Relations because UEMS did not pay one hour of OT [per shift, for lengthening the eight-hour shift to a nine-hour shift], and because of the union busting. But after I lodged the complaint, my employer made things even worse for me. The supervisor incited the other employees to avoid me, and issued counselling letters to me for even the slightest issues.

I asked for the women’s uniform but they did not allow it, and insisted that I must wear the men’s uniform. But I have always worn the women’s uniform, and the supervisor knows this. After the change to Edgenta UEMS, I was forced to wear the men’s uniform. I was very unhappy because I am a woman, not a man, but the supervisor refused to give me the women’s uniform.

There were some staff who touched me inappropriately. I reported it to the supervisor but the supervisor did not take any action. The supervisor also constantly bullied me because I am a transgender and I am active in the union — they wanted to put pressure on me so that I would give up, and resign or leave the union.

These things did not happen only once, but multiple times. The supervisor made things increasingly difficult. In April 2021, the supervisor again issued two counselling letters to me, because there was an officer from the Department of Industrial Relations who was coming to interview me. I held on for more than a year, until I became suicidal. I went to see a doctor, who gave me an MC [Medical Certificate] and told me to go home and rest, because the doctor was concerned after seeing me being so stressed and suicidal.

But I am not the only one facing this kind of pressure. 

Another female employee at the hospital also faced problems. The supervisor deliberately changed her station to the men’s ward, in order to get revenge on her. As a result, the employee suffered from psychological stress until she fainted and was admitted to the ward. She was also suicidal, and finally she resigned because she could not tolerate the situation any longer.  This also happened in April 2021.

The supervisors and UEMS have given us all kinds of pressure — they want to intimidate us, want us to be afraid to go to the union, and they want the union to collapse. The workers are all very frightened, they do not have the courage. I do not want the union to collapse, I want the union to live on, as it can help the workers. We can fight together, for the good of the workers.

This is a translation of the original testimony in Bahasa Malaysia.

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