Where the rubber hits the road: Union organising in EPZs

Posted: March 27, 2012 in Rights around the world
Tags: , , ,
Cavite Export Processing Zone

Cavite Export Processing Zone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If union organising can succeed in an export processing zone (EPZ), it can succeed anywhere.

I have hit upon an important article, published in 2006, about successful unionisation in EPZs titled The Squeaky Wheel’s Dilemma.

The very fact that we hear so much about the EPZs of the world (did someone say Shenzhen?) tells us that they have the potential to be organised. It’s something of a paradox. The International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF) bewails the state of Batam’s factories yet, relatively speaking, the island is a stronghold of membership. After hearing what McKay had to say, I am no longer surprised.

As human beings, we all want to find the silver bullet. The unmoveable object or the unstoppable force. Time and again it proves illusory or -more likely- creates an asymmetry which is soon rebalanced. Think of what happens in business: whenever a new, highly profitable, product is launched, the competitors are out with imitations to eat up market share, or they might even target the entire company for takeover. Unfortunately labour conditions can’t be fixed once and for all but require continued hard work to be secured and thereafter to be retained.

Labour in EPZs sounds outrageously inexpensive to a business considering relocating. Not only are wages lower but cost of regulatory compliance and risk of industrial unrest are lower too. In addition to being officially red-tape free zones, EPZs also prefer to employ mostly young, rural females in their first job.

The deck is stacked pretty solidly in favour of employers: Labour laws are weak or unenforceable, contracts are short-term, and the workers are migrants with no social ties to the place of work anyway. It’s all a little too good to be true, and it is.

McKay uses Cavite in the Philippines as his example. Despite all of these advantages, companies still require the assent of both the workforce and, moreover, the local authorities to continue their operations. Few will stare down a workforce that is prepared to strike. Also workers have the advantage of being voting residents of the local area, whose authorities can be lobbied into taking action about flagrant abuses. Lastly labour can access international support that can not only provide advice and resources but also place pressure on the company at various levels.

It’s not as dire as it seems. The very fact that we are hearing about Foxconn means that someone is taking an active interest in those workers’ rights and is getting some access to them. The problems are real but capable of improvement.


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