A solidarity statement by
the Asian Transnational Corporations Monitoring Network
on the International Labour Day Celebrations
May 1, 2016
Under the globally pervasive neoliberal economic development regime, the Asian economies have become completely integrated and subsumed into global capitalism. Big Asian and global transnational corporations (TNCs) have built economic power by consolidating their regional and global production networks. On the other hand, developing countries in Asia opened up their economies to become eager hosts of TNC-driven and export-oriented industrial factories and corporate agricultural plantations. The governments of developing Asian states believe that economic growth can spring from foreign direct investment-friendly economic policies, which are often anti-people policies. ‘Let us wait for the growth to trickle down,’ they would say.
Hence, on the grounds of the “economically surging Asia” are the precarious workers who are assiduously toiling, suffering, and are being sacrificed upon the altar of neoliberalism. We observed that most Asian governments have been adopting labour law and economic reforms that not only bolster the neoliberal agenda but also curtail the rights of the workers and restrict the democratic space for workers’ organising and collective bargaining.
Asia’s race-to-the-bottom wages
In order to attract foreign investments, Asian governments are competing against each other in a race to the bottom in terms of labour standards. They implemented policies that directly cut wages, removed regulations on wage settings, and introduced flexible wage schemes. In the Philippines, a two-tiered wage system was advanced by the government in one region – the first tier is the floor wage based on the poverty threshold (USD 1/day) and the second tier is based on productivity. It resulted in reduced wages as the floor wage was 25 percent lower than the minimum wage while the payment of the productivity-based wage is not mandatory.
On the other hand, the Indonesian government issued a new wage regulation in October 2015 that changed the minimum wage-fixing mechanism. In the past, the minimum wage was set through a process of bargaining between the employers’ group and trade union, somehow taking into account the cost of living. In the new wage regulation, the minimum wage will be unilaterally determined by the government based on a formula that considers the inflation and the GDP growth. Worse, the adjustments will be made only every five years.
Legitimising the attacks on the right to organise
Asian governments also use the laws to suppress trade union activities. In Cambodia, for instance, the National Assembly passed the Trade Union Law on 4 April 2016, restricting the workers’ rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and strike. Championed by the industrial capitalists, the enactment of the new law is defended by the Ministry of Labour, declaring that it will aid in attracting more investments. In China, the Foreign NGO Activities Law was already submitted to the National People’s Congress for enactment. It limits the activities of foreign NGOs in China, including those that support the building of an independent labour movement at the grassroots level.
It is relevant to note, however, that even before these laws are passed, the space for independent labour movements’ activities have been restricted. We have witnessed the violent crackdowns of strikes in Cambodia in the past years and the arrests of numerous labour activists in China in December of last year, two of whom are still in detention. Needless to say, the recent laws are being pushed to legitimise harassment, violent actions, and criminalisation of labour activists.
Violent crackdowns on the working poor’s protests
Even in countries where the policies are supposed to protect working people’s rights, the reality shows a precarious face. In Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, landless farmers protesting for land rights on 29 March 2016 faced violent repression. Sixty-four protesters were arrested while 14 were injured after being shot by the police. Two days later, on 1 April 2016, hungry farmers in Kidapawan, Philippines suffered the same but more brutal fate. Demanding for rice, the protesting farmers got bullets instead. Three died while 76 were arrested, including elderly and pregnant women. While the marginalised people face injustices and harassment, agricultural TNCs in these two countries are enjoying not only incentives for investments but also protection from the military.
Reversing the gains from past struggles
Moreover, the victories from the struggles of labour and other social movements have been reversed. In South Asia, particularly, labour law reforms are going backwards. In the past year, the reforms that are being proposed in India aim to flexibilise labour arrangements by making hiring and firing easier and by excluding the majority of the workers from the purview of the law. Sri Lanka, which has one of the best severance benefits, is considering reducing the benefits at the request of the employers. Meanwhile, in response to the increasing number of trade unions registered since the Rana Plaza tragedy, the Bangladesh government issued new Labour Rules in September 2015 to regulate union registration more strictly.
We, at the ATNC Monitoring Network, are alarmed at these trends and developments in Asia that are obviously aimed at further reinforcing the neoliberal agenda, eroding the workers’ rights, and dismantling the labour movement. We believe that genuine economic development should prioritise the interest and welfare of the poor and the marginalised and not of the global TNCs and wealthy elites. Thus, we strongly condemn the naked and violent attacks on labour activists and innocent working people who demand for a life of dignity.
Today, on International Labour Day, we register the following calls:
- Stop the neoliberal attacks on labour!
- Respect the workers’ rights to organise, bargain collectively, and strike!
- Eliminate flexible labour arrangements that make workers more vulnerable!
- Fight for living wage for Asian workers!
- Justice for victims of harassment, criminalisation, and human rights violations!
- Uphold the working people’s dignity!
We stand in solidarity with the working people of Asia who persistently fight for their rights and tirelessly build an independent and democratic labour movement in the region.