In the last few years the Asian region has been central to workers’ resistance against exploitation, against the denial of basic rights and a general regression of democracy.
A series of massive actions has drawn special attention in the global scene: from the strikes for minimum wage increase in Indonesia, Cambodia, Bangladesh and other countries, to the national general strikes against the backward labour reform in India.
Protests in Asia have gone from mass mobilization against the ongoing expansion of contract and precarious work in the Philippines to the strikes and the candlelight movement against government’s corruption and deterioration of workers’ rights in South Korea.
A vigorous part of the global workers’ movement has arisen in Asia, a continent often referred to as the ‘world’s factory’.
Most of the jobs in the region are linked to the global supply chains of the transnational corporations (TNCs). The workers employed in the world’s famous TNCs are at the lowest tier of the supply chain and have the most hazardous jobs with poor working conditions and low wages.
The control over the process of production and of profits remains in the hands of a few transnational corporations. They command technology-intensive and high value added production operations and they have established a true monopoly with their brands within their markets.
While governments are too often focused on attracting more foreign investments, which put constant pressure on local companies for just-in time supply, workers in the region are suffering infringement of fundamental labour rights and very poor working conditions.
Out of 35 ILO member countries in the region, only 18 (less than half) have ratified Convention 87 on Freedom of Association while more than one third have yet to ratify Convention 98 on Right to organize and collective bargaining.
It is extremely difficult for trade unions to exercise the right to organize, to bargain collectively and to strike, especially the workers in Export Processing Zones (EPZs) which in many countries are totally excluded from fundamental labour rights and protections.
The arrest and sentence to 3-year imprisonment of Han Sang-gyun, former president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), clearly illustrated this repressive climate aruond trade union activity in the region.
The majority of jobs is still precarious and a large number of people are involuntarily engaged in various types of employment such as fixed-term and short-term contracts, temporary agency work, subcontracting, etc. These non-standard forms of employment are being used by the employers to have a more flexible use of the labour force as well as to prevent freedom of association and trade union rights.
In the Philippines the Duterte government failed to end contractualization and limited on some occasions the freedom of trade unions to organize and protest. In Cambodia employers are actively introducing Fixed Duration Contract to prevent workers from joining unions. Transnational corporations like Samsung are the main culprit for the increase of precarious work in the region.
Minimum wage increase is one of the most pressing demands in Asia. In many cases the wage, especially for workers in the lower tier of the supply chain is kept to a minimum. Under the globalized production network and supply chain, the transnational corporations or the international brands, which are the main contractors, force the workers to compete against each other in a race to the bottom and this is pushinf down wages.
In order to repress the strong movement demanding a minimum wage increase, governments tend to restrict the democratic space where trade unions can engage in minimum wage setting. For example, in Indonesia after a number of national general strikes and a rapid increase of the minimum wage rate, the government abolished the annual minimum wage negotiation.
The global labour movement should do more to support the workers’ demands in Asia to improve the working conditions of those who remain at the bottom of the global supply chain.
For the empowerment of the workers themselves we need a strong campaign for the universal ratification of the ILO fundamental conventions, especially the convention on freedom of association.
The ITUC should coordine a joint collective action to stop the race to the bottom, increase the wages and improve working conditions significantly, for all workers in Asia.