LETTER | Amnesty International Malaysia finds the decision by Attorney-General (AG) Idrus Harun to uphold charges against union activists who held a peaceful picket in defence of hospital workers, deeply disappointing.
The five union activists were protesting alleged mistreatment of hospital workers, including a lack of decent wages, loss of labour rights protections and inadequate personal protective equipment.
They have been charged with allegedly violating the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (Measures within the Infected Local Areas) Regulations 2020 and if convicted, they face up to RM1,000 in fines and/or six months imprisonment.
“The AG's decision today to criminalise activists seeking to protect the rights of hospital workers is very alarming. A criminal charge is a disproportionate response to the picket, even more so when there were less than 20 participants who all wore masks and observed physical distancing.
"In a global health crisis, any restriction of rights needs to be necessary and proportionate,” said Amnesty International Malaysia executive director Katrina Jorene Maliamauv.
“The arrest and charging of the activists amount to a violation of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly and must be overturned. The decision to uphold the charges is a blow to these freedoms.
"It also sets a harmful precedent of the government which favours those accused of rights violations and creates a climate in which workers cannot seek protection of their rights for fear of criminal sanction,” she said.
In addition to the demands stated above, the union activists were also protesting allegations of union-busting undertaken by the company sub-contracted to hire hospital cleaners - UEMS Edgenta.
The union alleges that union members were unfairly targeted, subjected to threats of disciplinary action, and forbidden to engage in union-related discussion even during break times. UEMS Edgenta has denied such allegations.
Amnesty International Malaysia launched an online action calling for the AG to drop the charges and open investigations into the above allegations. Over 7,000 people wrote emails to the AG echoing these calls.
A clip from the documentary "Bila Kami Bersatu" (When We Join Forces) featuring a hospital cleaner expressing her anguish over the poor wages and unfair treatment she endured has been shared over 15,000 times and garnered half a million views.
“Apart from overturning the charges, we strongly urge the authorities to open investigations into the allegations made by the union. These investigations should be carried out independently from the company in question and transparently.
"The government must ensure it protects frontline workers, not criminalise those who speak up for them," Katrina said.
“Authorities must not sit idly by while the individuals most at risk of contracting Covid-19 struggle to make ends meet. The pandemic has reminded us that the jobs hospital cleaners undertake is essential for the health of all Malaysians.
"They deserve to be paid a fair living wage, and to have their rights to health, freedom of assembly, association and expression upheld,” she added.
The hospital workers are contract workers hired by companies subcontracted by the government to provide cleaning staff to hospitals around Malaysia.
In 2016, the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services (NUWHSAS) was revived to negotiate more favourable terms of employment with their employer and they developed a collective agreement of 43 demands.
In October 2019, a new collective agreement of 38 demands was agreed upon with their employer and was slated to take effect in January. However, before the agreement came into force, the subcontract was sold off to a different company, UEMS Edgenta who has allegedly refused to honour the previous collective agreement.
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