The Asian labour zeitgeist

Posted: November 10, 2013 in Indonesia, Rights around the world

Greetings from Bogor, Java!

I’m attending the conference of the Asian Transnational Corporation monitoring network. Listening to the country reports yesterday there was a pretty clear consensus on what are the most pressing issues for labour across the region. They are:

  1. Living wages In the majority of countries in the region, the minimum wage is not enough to live on.
  2. Subcontracting An employer ploy to avoid labour regulations. The good news is that determined organising can counteract it despite the complete lack of legal levers to pull. I found it interesting that the representatives spoke of the disadvantages exclusively in relation to the loss of social welfare benefits and not at all about two other reasons I’m familiar with in Australia: difficulty in collective bargaining and the work/life balance problem of losing control over working hours.
  3. Union busting – Ranging from its most blatant forms of disappearances of union activists in the Philippines and Bangladesh through imprisonment in China to sacking and retaliation against union members (a method used nearly everywhere) to more subtle methods used in Malaysia and Korea of setting up toothless unions and/or denying registration of legitimate unions on spurious technicalities.
Indonesia seems to be making the most progress. So much so that businesses have been putting signs outside their factories advertising that they do not use contract labour. The thought crossed my mind that if they succeed in formalising the workforce and having a powerful labour-political nexus that will bring problems of its own. Then again, which would you prefer? A politics dominated by a compromised but still effective labour movement or a politics dominated by the close friends of capitalists? I know which I’d rather have.
One observation that remained with me was Hilmar Farid’s comment that Indonesia will work out differently to the Anglo nations because here the waves of economic change that took a century in Australia or the USA are all happening at once. People are coming in off the farms and finding themselves in advanced industries like electronics whose management have equally advanced anti-union strategies. Yet another reason to think twice before proffering advice.

Photo: Chinese Wal-Mart activist

  1. marksolock says:

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  2. […] to a first job in workplaces with inscrutably complex ownership structures (see related post). Perhaps those of us in the Global North should spend more time learning how people are […]

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