Union members demanding PPE charged

Pudu Prison in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 1985
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Hospital cleaners in Malaysia are contract workers, hired by private companies who have been sub-contracted by concessionaires that were awarded government contracts for hospital support services. As contract workers, cleaners are often paid the minimum wage of RM1,200 (USD 280), and do not receive annual pay rises and other benefits, including permanent contracts, 15 days of paid public holidays, annual leave, bonuses, and compensation in the event of retrenchment. 

In 2016, the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services (NUWHSAS) was revived by a group of hospital cleaners in the northern region to negotiate a collective agreement of 43 demands including increased starting wages and a yearly increment. NUWHSAS report that they negotiated a new collective agreement of 38 demands in October 2019 setting out the terms and conditions of the contract cleaners’ employment. Before the agreement was supposed to take effect in January 2020, however, the sub-contract was sold off to a different company – a subsidiary of a public listed and government-linked company owned by the Malaysian government’s sovereign wealth fund. According to media reports, the company now refuses to recognise the union, and the collective agreement was null and void. The company has neither confirmed nor denied that it refuses to recognise the union but said the claim of union busting is the subject of a pending trade dispute case under the Industrial Relations Act Section 18, but court proceedings have been postponed due the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to NUWHSAS, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, cleaners did not have access to adequate personal protective equipment when they cleaned COVID-19 wards and facilities, and Edgenta UEMS has provided them with an inadequate supply of masks and gloves. The union has also accused Edgenta UEMS of particularly targeting cleaners active in the union by: 
•    Changing the working hours and shifts of workers active in the union; 
•    Arbitrarily transferring union members to hospitals far from their residence;
•    Forbidding union-related discussion between union worksite committees and workers, even during break times;
•    Disallowing union members from working overtime to increase their earnings;
Intimidating and threatening union members with disciplinary action. 

On June 3, the company released a statement denying the allegations put forth by the union, including the deliberate changing of hours and shifts, arbitrary transfer to hospitals, forbidding union activities, verbal harassment, the denial of PPE, and the lack of increment in wages and paid holidays. However, legal representatives of the union stand by their original allegations.

In a letter to Amnesty International Malaysia on June 19, UEM Edgenta once again denied the allegations. They also stated that they had taken multiple actions since the incident. These include forming an internal taskforce to review the allegations by the union; a roadshow at selected hospitals in Northern Peninsular Malaysia that included an audit of PPE and engagement sessions with healthcare support services employees; and the development of PrihatinLine, an online channel for HSS employees to share feedback and concerns with top management and the new taskforce. 

Prior to this incident, on 26 March 2020, the union stated that workers at Teluk Intan Hospital were barred by the same company from being screened for COVID-19—despite 39 health staff at the hospital having tested positive. The union claimed that the company’s reasoning for refusing testing was that there would be no replacements for the cleaners if they were asked to go on leave following the screening3. On 27 March, the Ministry of Health ordered all workers at the hospital to undergo COVID-19 tests.

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