Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The tale of three women's struggle for justice and equality




The tale of three women's struggle for justice and equality
by Indrani Kopal | 12:05PM May 24, 2012

Guppy Union was started by women workers who worked in a plastics factory in Balakong, Cheras. Their struggle and desire to start a union started 14 years ago, when they were frustrated with their bosses for increasing their wages by a mere 10 sen. The workers then decided to get organised to protect their interests. The first meeting to establish a pro-tem committee was held on Nov 16, 1997.

After much hassle, the government approved the Guppy Industries Workers Union on April 2, 1998, led by a seven-member committee with Koyil Vani Saminathan as chairperson. However, Guppy refused to recognise the union unless three-quarters of the workers joined the union, including those in the branch in Prai, Penang. The union committee and members were left frustrated as they had not been aware of the Prai operations.

Still, the three main office-bearers - Koyil Vani Saminathan, secretary Roshamiza Muhamamd and treasurer Kanniamah Annasamy - headed for Prai to recruit members. In spite of numerous threats, negative propaganda and dirty tricks by the factory owners to deter union activities, they were able to slowly add to the membership.

On May 30, 1998, however, the management suspended all the committee members and then sacked Koyil Vani, Roshamiza, who had worked for the company since April 1993, and Kanniamah, an employee since July 1991. However, the 200 union members re-elected Koyil Vani as their chairperson up to 2008.

The union continued to function under the able leadership of vice-chairperson Rahiman Mansor and assistant treasurer S Visaletchumy. But on Aug 25, 2001, they were suspended and eventually sacked. Guppy Plastic Industries rejected all attempts by Industrial Relations officers to reinstate the workers or to agree to resolve any of the disputes referred by the union.

In September 1998, the matter was referred to the Industrial Court. In May 2006, the union lost the case, but took it to the High Court two months later. In 2009, victory was theirs. However, the unhappy company appealed in October 2011, leading to a verdict in its favour on Feb 21, 2012. Under Koyil Vani, the union had also championed a gender discrimination case for 11 years against the management.

In June 2001, 30 women workers above the age of 50 were forced to retire after a new handbook of employment regulations was introduced by the company, in which the retirement age was stipulated. Eight of them filed a complaint with the Industrial Court. In 2008, it decided in their favour, finding that the difference in retirement age constitutes gender discrimination. Guppy Plastic Industries sought a review and in 2010, the High Court overturned the decision.

The eight then filed an appeal, but this was dismissed by the Court of Appeal on March 21, 2012 in a unanimous decision by a three-member bench. Justice KN Segara said the company was merely following its own employment regulations and that it is the industry norm to have different retirement ages.

For 14 years, these women had battled double oppression, for being women and for being a union member, in a country that is signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

This is their story.

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