PETALING JAYA | A recent Industrial Court (IC) award in a collective agreement (CA) dispute that used Covid-19 as a reason to deny any salary revision has set a bad precedent for future negotiations, say unions.
Another blow in the same decision was limiting the backdating of revised benefits to six months from the date the dispute was referred to the court by the human resources minister although the CA negotiations began in January 2018.
In the written decision handed down by Penang Industrial Court chairman Domnic Selvam Gnanapragasam on Nov 26, the new CA became effective only in July last year after the dispute was referred to the IC the previous December by former human resources minister M Kula Segaran.
According to the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), not only does this mean that the new terms became effective 18 months after negotiations started, but the three-year period of the CA will now end in July 2023, instead of 18 months earlier.
The Northern Electronic Workers Union and Panasonic Automotive Systems Sdn Bhd could not settle their claims for the CA which forced the Penang Industrial Relations Department to refer the matter to the minister who sent it to the IC.
MTUC general council member A Sivananthan said the decision handed down on Nov 26 dealt a double blow in this case when it also denied the union’s claim of 10% across-the-board salary increases citing the current Covid-19 situation.
“There are two things here that have upset the workers. First is that the backdating is limited to six months before the date the matter was sent to the IC by the minister.
“But the court had no choice as it was according to Section 30 (7) of the Industrial Relations Act, which we consider a monster,” he told FMT.
He said that each time any CA were to go to the court and was delayed, the agreements would be further extended, with workers at the losing end.
“While we agree that citing the Covid-19 circumstances can affect such awards during the pandemic, the chairman failed to examine the documents to verify if the company had indeed suffered as a result of Covid-19,” he said.
Sivanathan, who is also an adviser to the union, said the chairman should have included a clause in his written judgment requiring the management to go back to the union for renegotiation as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic is controlled and business is back to normal.
“Our contention is that Covid-19 is a temporary health issue. Yes, the economy is affected but this is not permanent. If the pandemic situation remains, the workers will be denied another revision if the court continues to use this judgment,” he said.
He said decisions such as these could also be used unscrupulously by other companies as precedents and deny the workers their rightful salary increases.
He said the MTUC had time and again written to the human resources ministry to review Section 30(7) to make it mandatory for any award to begin from the date when the CA negotiations begin but “no one listens”.
In his judgment, Domnic said in his concluding remark that the court had taken into consideration the interests of the union and the company in this fragile economy.
“As uncertainties loom caused primarily by the Covid-19 pandemic, the court remains cautious in its decision with the interest of both parties in mind,” he said.