Asia-Pacific workers wage struggles to turn ‘formal’ rights into reality

Everywhere, restrictions on workers forming genuine unions have prompted them to do union organizing in an “underground” or clandestine way, at least, at first.

See also: Unionists from Asia and the Pacific share same stories of attacks on workers’ rights

Indonesian workers battle high prices, low wages despite producing oil, registering growth ratesIndonesian workers battle high prices, low wages despite producing oil, registering growth rates


MANILA – “Our voice is our strength, but we’re not supposed to be heard,” said a call center agent and representative of BIEN (BPO Industry Employees Network) at an international conference of union advocates held recently in Quezon City. The BPO (business process outsourcing) industry is touted in the Philippines as a sunshine industry, employing over half a million, mostly young, English-proficient people. Their work involves answering all-day (or most often all-night) phone calls for big companies from banks to hotels to respond to customers’ requests and queries. They have quotas and monitors tracking it that disallow sufficient breaks, whether for eating or for relieving themselves. Their voice is their asset, but they cannot use it for voicing a collective desire to, say, form a union. If they try, they will get fired, said Paul, a BIEN representative at the union advocates’ conference.

“I have noticed from my years working in call centers that although in the employee agreement, there is no prohibition against forming unions, you must have the blessing of the company first if you intend to form one,” Paul said. Compared to other Filipino workers, call center employees receive a slightly better pay, he admitted, but he emphasized that “the reason why they (outsourcing companies) left their county is to look for cheap labor and that’s what we are.” Doing the same work, they get correspondingly lower pay than if the outsourcing companies stayed in their home countries which are now the “client” countries of call center agents, hence their unholy work hours (They work mostly at night as that is daytime in client countries).

“Relocation” or outsourcing to countries with low wages is one way by which multinational companies based in advanced capitalist countries try to keep their profits up and cope with the economic crisis. But as Australian Peter Murphy noted, an “aggressive implementation of neoliberal policies mean thousands and thousands of jobs are leaving Australia” each year. In the US, President Barack Obama, when he was still new in the White House, had also vowed to tackle how they could keep some of the jobs in the US.

Australian Peter Murphy at a solidarity action with Filipino unionists in Quezon City
Australian Peter Murphy at a solidarity action with Filipino unionists in Quezon City

From the discussion of trade unionists and advocates, “relocation” has lots of ill effects on workers and unions. In Australia, for example, “When companies close, (the) union movement is gone,” Murphy said. The problem is, it is harder to register new unions. Workers may be able to form new unions, but when in the process of registering it, there is “a very narrow window during which a union is protected; anything outside of that is subject to draconian measures,” said Murphy. Pro-union workers in Australia can be put to jail, he said.

As in cases in other countries, there is a long established practice in Australia of blacklisting union activists, according to Murphy. “Employers can eliminate unions. After identifying workers with pro-union sentiments, they will not employ that worker.”

“Extreme policing” in the workplace forces people not to talk of, say, health and safety, Murphy said.

For those who still have unions, struggling for better working conditions and higher wages became harder. The union could be practically done away with, Murphy said. “You can be pressured to enter into an individual agreement – even if you have a collective agreement in the company, especially if the union is weak or yellow.”

These are completely against all ILO agreements, Murphy noted. Yet, individual agreements at the workplace, he said, are now being used “against unorganized workers, and for circumventing the contract with the union (for example, having 500 individual agreements in a workplace, rather than a CBA covering these 500).”

During the sharing of experiences of other unionists from Asia-Pacific and the US – the weakening of unions and circumvention of their rights were noted as big corporations relocate its labor-intensive production from one place to another on the planet; as employers use laws to “regulate” and in the process, limit and control workers’ organizing; and as governments police and threaten workers away from unions and strikes.

Do we really have rights to have unions?

There are too many requirements before you can form, then register a union, said lawyer Remigio Saladero at the international conference. Working with Pro-Labor Assistance Center, he has had too many experiences of how “when unions are finally formed, the management would connive with the police or with the labor department or both to harass the union.”

As with the “draconian measures” cited by Murphy in Australia, Saladero recounted tales where the management itself violated due process and the government displayed its inability to lift a finger in defense of workers.

The Philippines is a signatory to many ILO Conventions recognizing trade union rights – yet, based on Saladero’s account, the workers’ status of not being regular on the job, despite having worked for more than the labor law’s prescribed period, “already defeats freedom of association.”

For regular workers who are expected to form and register unions more easily, Saladero said the restraints to their freedom of association can be found in the numerous paper requirements, from submitting a constitution and by-laws, to offering copies of union financial statements and minutes of the meetings, etc., documents which are difficult for “unschooled” workers who are also hard-pressed to work. Beyond unionism, it seems unionists are expected to also know a lot about accounting, lawyering and other skills before they can get their union registered, Saladero said.

Thai labor unionists said they face similar constraints. The 1975 Thai labor law is “very, very narrow in its definition of freedom of association,” said Bent Gehrt of Workers Rights Consortium. “During the formation of a union, you have no protection. You must hold a general election, have committees, submit papers. Protections are available far down the road, and there are many ways to dismiss workers before you get there.”

In Bangladesh, union leader Lovely Yesmin said they also have a labor law that says, “we have to inform factory owner if we want to have union.”

Yesmin said they are questioning that, “We say no; we have a democracy. Why do we need to inform our factory owners if we are to do what we already have a right to do?”

Like in Philippine special economic zones where there exists an unwritten no-union no-strike policy, in Bangladesh, there is also no law prohibiting the formation of unions, but in export processing zone areas, workers cannot form unions, Yesmin said.

“Why make two rules? We have a labor law, but it does not apply in EPZs?” Yesmin said they are fighting that everyday. She said they have lots of recommendations but these are not being implemented.

If local labor laws “require workers to inform management that they’re forming a union, that’s the same as denying the freedom of association – no management will agree to their workers’ forming a union. Although laws do not prohibit the formation of unions, the law prevents workers from forming unions,” said Danilo Reyes of Hong Kong-based Asia Human Rights Council.

Cambodian union advocate Athit Kong said that in their country, they have this “very ridiculous law, (where) you have to ask government permission before you can form a union.” He said workers in his country can be punished, slapped with fines or penalties, for conducting union action.

Kong said that in the media, “they look at the union as ‘trouble makers,’ but they never speak of employers as troublemakers in TV programs.” As in the Philippines and many other countries, workers in Cambodia are forced to forge a memorandum of understanding via arbitration first, before they may consider launching a strike.

Hang Tung prepares to do 'solidarity walk' with other delegates to an international conference on freedom of association
Hang Tung prepares to do ‘solidarity walk’ with other delegates to an international conference on freedom of association

In China, on paper, all workers are covered by unions, but, based on the account of Hang Tung, program officer of Labor Action China, unions there are largely formed by government officials. Most workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements, but workers do not really experience bargaining. The process is to petition union officials like petitioning government representatives regarding the workers’ demands.

Hang Tung shared that workers are frustrated by the setup and they resort to “underground organizing.”

Workers’ actions to be heard

It appears that in almost all countries, on paper, workers’ freedom of association is recognized. However, government-backed or government-formed union centers present a challenge to genuine trade unions. In the Philippines they are called “yellow unions,” to distinguish from progressive unions referred to as ‘red’ by the military. These government-sponsored unions function to show to the world that workers are allowed to form unions. But in reality, these unions barely attend to workers’ issues. Or if they do, as the progressive labor bloc in the Philippines observed, yellow unions serve to either discredit genuine unionists or to confuse ordinary workers to dissuade them from joining real unions.

“Every country is dominated by pro-government unions,” noted Cambodian unionist Kong. In his country, he said, they have good union density, but in reality, workers do not enjoy their freedom of association. “You are free to join unions but these have no platform,” and it exists only with government permission, he said.

Everywhere, restrictions on workers forming genuine unions have prompted them to do union organizing in an “underground” or clandestine way, at least, at first. In Indonesia, workers are organized into “informal unions” for years before being registered or formalized. It first took the ouster of the dictator Suharto.

Because there are “so many obstacles to prevent workers from forming genuine unions from the time you expose yourself, we do it in the underground,” said US-based Tony Dorono of Migrant Workers Center. Labor organizers in Thailand agreed with that, as do the Filipinos.
“Like in the US, you really need to do a lot of ‘underground organizing.’ Once you submit papers to the labor department, if you’re not prepared, you will not get to first base,” said Gehrt of Workers Rights Consortium.

In the US, American Labor Relations Act provides a minimum of 30 percent of workers wanting to form a union before workers can file a petition for union registration and recognition, but, Dorono said, they would rather go for 75 percent. “Management starts busting the union by identifying the members, their backgrounds, their weaknesses. Union busters have studied labor relations so much they can do these and circumvent the law. Without a strong committee from within the union, you’re a goner,” Dorono said.

As more jobs leave rich countries such as the US for cheaper wages overseas, China and other countries become manufacturing centers and warehouses of rich countries. Relocation brings down wages both in the US and other wealthy countries. In countries to which factories move, the cheapest wage and most repressed labor are being offered, said Elmer “Bong” Labog, chairman of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).
The international conference of unionists agreed that notwithstanding all these threats, limits and lies about freedom of association, they are correct in upholding this right, and they called for greater international cooperation to further amplify campaign efforts for workers. And thwart the corporations’ drive to further press down workers’ wages and rights worldwide.

Amid proposals to be more active together by banding together, supporting each other and doing international campaigns together, American Liana Dalton of Adidas League reported her group’s idea of “making trouble for these corporations and the governments supporting them.” The ‘trouble’ ranges from launching international campaigns to expose the anti-labor acts of corporations and governments, to helping to strengthen individual union formations in their respective countries by launching more solidarity actions. (

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