PRESS STATEMENT – 80TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE KLANG STRIKES BY RUBBER ESTATE WORKERS IN 1941 AND PUBLICATION OF THE 2ND EDITION OF THE “STORY OF TEARS” BY THE LATE R. THIAGARAJAH
This year is the 80th anniversary of the Klang strikes which saw the rise of the Indian rubber estate proletariat asserting their rights for better wages, conditions and, representation against a British colonial plantation class pursuing maximum profits and who were backed by the colonial administration with their full police and military might. 6 workers lost their lives in this struggle. We are commemorating the Klang strikes because it marked a milestone in the awakening of the Indian (mainly Tamil) working class in Malaya.
We, concerned citizens, intend to commemorate their struggle for dignity through an event to be held. In addition, we will also re-publish a book “Story of Tears” (“Kannir Sollum Kathai”) written by the late R. Thiagarajah (unionist, worker rights activist and past President of the Workers Party (Organisation) of Malaysia, now Parti Amanah Negara) depicting the plight of the rubber estate workers during the Klang strikes. This commemoration is tentatively planned for 6th June at the Midlands Convention Centre in Shah Alam. Final details will be announced later given the changing Covid-19 situation.
In the years leading up to 1941, the drums of war were already beating loudly in Europe. In the Far East, Japan who had already invaded Manchuria in China was expanding its war to the rest of that country.
Against that backdrop, Malaya, a colony of the British was a cash generator through rubber planting and tin mining. Demand for these commodities was soaring with prices and profits rising steeply due to the war.
Since the turn of the 20th century, vast areas of the western strip of the Peninsula were deforested by private British planters and turned into large rolling estates. This was labour intensive and the British colonial authorities brought in mostly poor and unskilled Tamils from South India to work in these estates. In the 1931 census, there were 379,996 Indians in the Federated Malay States (Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang) or 22% of the total local population; 132,277 Indians in the Straits Settlements or 12% of the total population and 110,951 Indians in the Unfederated Malay States (Johore, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu) or 7% of the total population. About 80% of the Indians were Tamils and estate workers.
They were housed in “coolie” lines located on the estate where they were employed. Wages were low, hours were long and conditions were poor and the workers were not organized across estates. The isolation of these estates locked in the workers to their plantations to the benefit, of course of the estate owners. Between 1933 and 1936, rubber prices rose 250% yet employers strongly resisted pressures to restore wages to pre-Depression (pre-1929) levels. In May 1934, wages were 35 cents a day for men and 28 cents a day for women.
By the end of 1940, these were 50 cents and, 40 cents a day respectively due to improving rubber prices and also the intervention of the Government of India who at times, imposed bans on the emigration of Tamil labour to Malaya due to the poor wages and conditions. The workers organization on the estates initially comprised mainly of social clubs, caste associations and such like but none that represented workers interests. Then, in 1936, the Central Indian Association of Malaya (CIAM) was formed, to raise the status of the Indian community. Members of the CIAM were later to facilitate the forming of the Klang District Indian Union in July 1939. The first President was YK Menon who in May 1941 was replaced by one RH Nathan who was the assistant editor of the Tamil Nesan. The British police regarded both Menon and Nathan as troublemakers, meaning they were pro-labour unionists.
The British planters on the other hand were organized through the Planters Association of Malaya (PAM) formed in 1907, who then acted together with the London-based Rubber Growers Association (also established around 1907) comprising publicly-traded and private companies registered in London. In 1934 PAM was reorganized to include representatives of the RGA to become the United Planters Association of Malaya (UPAM).
In late 1940, Indian workers agitated for increased wages and improved conditions.
UPAM responded in January 1941, with 55 cents and 45 cents a day for men and women respectively with effect from February the same year. This was inadequate, so the workers launched almost immediately into a series of strikes until 8th April. Workers from Midlands Estate seemed to have spearheaded the effort. A settlement was reached only after the intervention of the Controller of Labour and the President of the CIAM N. Raghavan.
Although this was a small victory, the demands raised were not only about wages, and included:
• parity of pay between Indian and Chinese workers;
• removal of supervisory non-Tamil estate staff who were “brutal” & their replacement with Tamil-speaking staff;
• the provision of proper education for children and, the provision of proper medical facilities;
• an end to molesting of their womenfolk by European and “black” Europeans & the closing of toddy shops;
• the granting of freedom of speech and assembly and, free access to estates for relations and friends;
• permission for workers to remain mounted on their bicycles in front of European managers and their Asian staff;
• the abolition of 10 to 12-hour working days;
• no victimization of those presenting grievances, and
• permission for workers to combine to form an association to represent their interests.
In the background, the colonial authorities at the insistence of the planters, were also making plans to arrest and deport Menon, Nathan and even Raghavan.
After the initial settlement in the first week of April, 1941 and with other issues still open, a further 28 strikes took place between 15th April and 3rd May. The UPAM planters (not happy at all with the initial settlement) then reacted angrily by pushing the colonial authorities to arrest the so-called agitators ie Menon and Nathan in particular. The Controller of Labour, who until then was working towards arbitration and conciliation, buckled under their pressure and agreed to the arrest of Menon and Nathan. Nathan was arrested on 6 May and Menon (who was an estate clerk), was transferred to Singapore, and so avoided arrest.
When news spread of Nathan’s arrest, workers began gathering in Kuala Lumpur and Klang demanding his release. They then progressively started to down tools and strike one after the other. In one estate a road block was mounted to prevent rubber from being transported to Port Dickson. When police attempted to remove the blockage, clashes took place which carried on later that day when workers from a neighbouring estate joined in. Four workers were injured and there was one death amongst the workers. By 11th May strikes stopped work in practically every estate between Kuala Selangor and Sepang, with Klang in the middle. On 12th and 13th May, estates around Kuala Lumpur joined the strike. The police baton-charged the gatherings of strikers and occasionally fired upon them. This resulted in many injured and 5 deaths. On 14 May, 93 out of a total of 120 rubber estates in Kuala Selangor, Kuala Langat and Klang districts were reportedly on strike. One British estimate put the figure of 20,000 workers on strike at the height of this period. The police acted to progressively break the strike by arresting the key organisers and activists. During this period 386 arrest orders were issued under the Emergency Regulations. Hence, by 17 May, it was clear that the strike was being forcibly crushed, as Associated Press reported 15,000 workers on 40 estates still “idle”. The Klang District Indian Union was dissolved on government orders and Nathan was deported on 19 May.
By the end of May, troops returned to their barracks, and the Klang strikes were over because European plantation capital had successfully used the British colonial administration to break the strikes.
Although in the immediate aftermath, there was a hue and cry from the Agent of the Government of India (demanding an independent enquiry) and from the British Colonial Office including questions in the House of Commons about the deaths and oppression of Indian workers in the Klang strikes, there was in the end no commission of enquiry. In the end, the colonial state and plantation capital were aligned and that the greater focus on the war in Europe meant the fate of estate workers in the plantations of Malaya were not going to get any real attention.
We on the other hand, should remember and commemorate the Klang strikes by Indian rubber workers as an important part of the history of the Malaysian working class. The names of the workers killed will also be remembered.
We look forward to the commemoration on 6th June 2021 in Shah Alam. We also hope that descendants of the strikers can step forward so that we may capture their respective recollections and narratives to weave together a fuller picture, especially from the strikers’ perspective.