Southeast Asia Trade Union Movement and its development

Southeast Asia profile on economic opportunities and development

SEASoutheast Asia is a region covering some parts of Indochina and Malaya Peninsula and islands around them.

The region is commonly categorized into two groups which are mainland of Southeast Asia including Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and Southeast Asia maritime namely Brunei Darussalam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Timor Leste.

Historically, the Southeast Asia has been at the crossroads of India and China, therefore we can clearly see traces of longstanding Indian and Chinese cultural influences. The hegemonic power of China (economy) is steady rise in this region, massive investment in-large scale infrastructure such as communications, roads and railway lines, construction and energy.

Geo-politically, Vietnam is rather different from other countries in this region and doesn’t share common characteristics of Southeast Asia nations because of China’s entrenched influence upon Vietnamese including their political ideology. This puts the country in significant position in making a closer relation between Chinese and other countries in the region. Geo-economically, influence China upon development and economic growth in general in Lao PDR is also significant in which the Communist has been injecting most of investments in the country.

Geo-political and –economical close cooperation has been established through ASEAN, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Ten (10) countries have joined this group. Meanwhile, Timor Leste has yet become a member of the association but declared itself to soon would be part of the group and recently after the ASEAN summit in April 2013, Secretary General of ASEAN Le Luong Minh stated that all member states now supported Timor-Leste’s admission to the Association. However, the ASEAN are pushing Timor Leste to qualify the obligations of the ASEAN’s three pillars, namely economic, political and sociocultural for their full membership. 

Similarity in history (and, particularly, colonialism experience), culture, ethic, language (Bahasa Melayu has been lingua franca for some people living in the mainland and peninsula of Southeast Asia), social, politic and economy has driven cooperation among ASEAN members, and this cooperation is expected to build a rounded stability in the region, especially economic and political stability.

ASEAN members States has determined direction of their economy policy by setting up ASEAN Economic Community 2015 . ASEAN Economic Community 2015 will become a new episode for economy development of countries in the region with its goals by 2015:

(a) a single market and production base;
(b) a highly competitive economic region;
(c) a region of equitable economic development, and;
(d) a region fully integrated into the global economy.

This will be a good prospect and opportunity for inter-region economy cooperation in a larger scale in which population of the region has reached currently 600 million people. With total economy value worth of US$2.3 billion per year and an average economy growth at 5-6% per year, Southeast Asia has become the fifth largest economy in the world. In another sides, country leaders of this region has also sustainably tried to open opportunities for integrating ASEAN to all economy in East Asia, especially China, Japan, South Korea, even India and APEC.

This work will not be easy because of uneven development among ASEAN countries. There is still a wide economy gap among members of ASEAN. There is a wide discrepancy in per capita income between countries of Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand and their counterpart Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. As for example, per capita income of Singaporean in 2012 is US$52,613 per year while those in Myanmar are only US$1,817 per year.

It’s predicted that there will be 350 million workforce in ASEAN by 2015 in which some increments in number of workforces will be in low economy countries such as Cambodia or Philippines. Meanwhile, countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam are estimated will suffer from workforce shortage by 2015. One of predictors for this will happen in those later countries is that their economy grows more rapidly than their population growth. And this, in turn, opens a highly labour free-flow among the ASEAN countries. To anticipate such predicted situation, ASEAN Labour Ministers Meeting sets some provisions covering labour conditions, labour sector administration, tripartism, and skill development. Specifically, they also would hold a meeting called ASEAN Labour Inspection Conference where Member States effectively regulate occupational safety and health to ensure safe working conditions for ASEAN workers and to promote regional best practices with respect to Labour Ministries inspectorates oversight of workplace compliance with labour laws and referencing to ILO standards where appropriate, particularly in the area of OSH standards and inspection.

Democracy and Politic

Democracy, as it is emphasized in the charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has become a common goal in the establishment of an ASEAN Community by 2015. But de facto democracy cannot be fully implemented in most countries in the region. In fact, most of them are haunted by political turmoil and anti-democratic attitudes.

Freedom of expression is exist in Singapore but limited and government still use ISA, the Internal Security Act (enacted in 1960), a law permitting detention without trial. The ruling party, People’s Action Party (PAP), has led the country since its separation from Malaysia in 1965. However, 2011 general election in the country brought about a slight remark in which PAP secured 81 out of 87 seats, meaning that opposition now has 6 seats in parliament. Many young workers and progressive votes use social media to spread the support to opposition parties, and, despite only secured 6 seats, this has become a landmark to “democracy” in this country. The turning out of the Singaporean to vote for opposition parties is very probably due to the unhappiness of Singaporeans over the rising costs of public housing and healthcare, living cost, inequality of income distribution, immigration and jobs

Myanmar is on the transition of democracy, the ruling military dictatorship amended the constitution to give civilians “full control of the legislature and the military”. Restrictions on participation in politics have eased, Nobel Laureate and opposition National League for Democracy party (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi has won a by-election for parliament on general election in April 2012. NLD won a landmark vote by 43 seats of 45 seats contested by-election, however, the army and its allies dominate the 664-seat in the parliament . Civil liberties have also been strengthened, with greater media freedom and fewer restrictions on the right to assemble. Many political prisoners have been released and some exiled dissidents have been granted permission to return home without the fear of persecution, including the Federation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (FTUM) General Secretary Maung Maung. He returned to Rangoon on 4 September, after a 24-year exile in Bangkok.

Vietnam is a country in Southeast Asia region which politically has taken a constructive way of communism understanding. Communist Party, the ruling party in Vietnam, does not acknowledge opposition because of fear of multiparty as practised in other democratic countries. This country has often allegedly committed repression against democracy supporters and human rights activists by jailing them with accusation of subversion and rebel. Recently Vietnam endorsed new controversial decree making it illegal for internet users to share news reports online, the order states that blogs and other social media sites must contain only personal information. So far, this year alone 46 bloggers and democracy activists have been persecution and jailed on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda.

Cambodia is constitutional monarch which has just held its general election (July) in which eight parties contested for 123 parliament seats. In the election, the ruling party Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen had won 68 seats. Corruption is also the biggest issue of the ruling party. During Prime Minister Hun Sen era for almost 30 years, corruption has pervaded almost every sectors of Cambodian public life, with a system of patronage well entrenched in society. Both petty and grand forms of corruption are widespread. Law enforcement agencies are perceived as the most corrupt and inefficient sectors, lacking the independence, resources and capacity to effectively investigate and prosecute corruption cases.

Final result of Malaysian election has put back the ruling party Organisasi Nasional Malaysia Bersatu (UMNO) along with its coalition parties Barisan Nasional (BN) in the centre of power despite of mischief allegation in the votes calculation from the opposition Partai Pakatan Rakyat (PKR) led by Anwar Ibrahim.

Based on the situation of 10 countries in the ASEAN, Indonesia is practically the only one to have reached democratic standards. It is no wonder the international community has rated the country as the third-largest democratic nation after India and the United States. And although Indonesia has undergone a transition from authoritarianism to democracy; the process has not yet been consolidated. But Indonesia was fortunate, because its people were able to free themselves from the authoritarianism much earlier than those of other states in the region. Some big corruption cases has hampered the full implementation of democracy, especially as some parties scooping cash from mining, forestry and plantation sectors for funding their campaigns.

Philippine is known for its dynasty political system, from generation to generation, political power at either national or local levels is only circulated around few elite groups which by some estimation now collectively control 73 out of 80 national provinces. These powerful clans have decided the destiny of the Philippines over the past century and often given precedence to family over national interests. Beyond the return of controversial political clans and the deepened influence of political dynasties, analysts also weighed the role of election-related violence. More than 50 people have already been killed in election-related violence, including candidates and their aides . In addition, Philippine also maintains culture of impunity. The dynasty political system has led to a corrupt political system and caused a volatile criminal justice processes, the overpowering presence of the ruling class and an impoverished people. Philippine also has been a target of criticism from the world for its violations against human rights triggered by its impunity culture in which some political figures lives beyond hands of this effective country law.

Lao PDR holds onto socialist ideology and its Marxist-Leninism-inspired ruling party Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) is dominated by military groups. The party has become the single party after threw away the monarchism government more than thirty years ago. However, in current practice, economy policy of Lao PDR has inclined to free market which makes it possible for private sectors and foreign investments penetrating the country.

Following 1932-Revolution that turned Thailand into Constitutional Monarchy, political situation in the country has been dominated by Military regimes and bureaucratic elites with support from big-player entrepreneurs. This nation experienced four Prime Minister overtaking during 2007-2011 without election. Political conflicts were often triggered by conflicts among the elites including military coup d’état that sidelined the then Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra from political arena in 2006. That says that military is the most powerful actor in Thailand political system. National security conception is product of the ruling military regime. The military has made unity, stability, order, and discipline a basic values underpinning Thailand and, to some extent, military intervention into political system of the country has disrupted democracy to grow to its fully meaning. In last two years, administration of Prime Minester Yingluck Shinawatra has brought about political stability and economy, but people of Thailand is still hampered by the Lese Majeste Law which forbids anyone from insulting the King and members of the Royal Family.

Brunei Darussalam is an absolute monarchy state where Sultan acts as, aside from head of the state and of government, prime minister and defence minister. Aides of Sultan are his family members who take up other ministries and important official posts and run daily administration of the country. Since 1984, Brunei did not have legislative body but, in September 2000, Sultan decided to establish a pseudo-legislative body which does not have any power in its hands but only provides Sultan with suggestions. The country is the most stabile in the region in terms of political condition, rich with oil and natural gas as its main national income. Emergency situation is still applied in Brunei until now and good government practices really depend on individuals without institutional frameworks for guaranteeing sustainability of peace and stability. Freedom of speech is limited by Defamation Act, Newspaper Act, Sedition Act and Internal Security Act. Because of an absolute monarchy state, citizen of Brunei Darussalam is also “citizen” of Sultan and has to take allegiance oath to Sultan. Technically, the citizens have rights which can be derogable based on Sultan’s endorsement.

Timor Leste is the Asia’s newest nation, with its independence is declared in May 20, 2002. Portugal was the first that established a colonial control over Timor in the 16th century. Portugal invested little in Timor, and withdrew unilaterally in 1975 after deciding to dissolve its colonial empire. Indonesia invaded within days of the Timorese declaration of independence, and used force to crush popular resistance. However, international pressure increased and finally persuaded Indonesia to allow an independence referendum in 1999. After hard transition following the 1999 referendum, political internal and security situation were the main challenge of this country and UN established UNTAET (United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor) with mandates to (1) give security and law enforcement and uphold social order, (2) guarantee coordination and assistance for humanitarian aids, rehabilitation, and development, (3) establish effective administration, (4) assist in developing civilian and social services, (5) support capacity building for independent government, and (6) assist in creating sustainable development. Following the creation of its independent government, Timor Leste experienced economy recession in which the use of US dollar made living-stocks wildly soaring. The country rich with natural gas in its Timor Gap was faced with conflicts of internal factions and wide-spread political and security issues: the 2006 failed military coup d’état, 2008 assassination attempt to President Ramos Horta. It’s very possible that natural gas in the country that made the then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri loss his throne in which he signed a new Timor Sea Treaty with Australia forcing biggest part of the gas should be for Timor Leste. Australia’s influence has been significant and, however, the treaty changed political map of Timor Leste maritime which in the past Indonesia and upon Soeharto’s approval allowed Australia to got the biggest part of the resource in order to keep interest of the later still secure. High rate of underemployment and poor infrastructures still a daunting challenge for Timor Leste after its 11-years independence. Lacks of employment and private investments due to various reasons including land-conflicts also gave another challenge for the future of the country. March 2012, Timor Leste held election for its second times and more than 600,000 out of 1,1 million Timor Leste citizen was registered as voters for their new president. During its first election in 2007, horizontal conflict caused a deadly toll of 35 citizen and some others took refuge. The 2012 election was a significant moment for the country because UN would have finished its missions and transferred all its security responsibility to Timor Leste authority. April 2012, result from second round of the election elected ex-army commander of Timor Leste Taur Matan Ruak as the president.

Human rights issue

States and development policy-makers preferring to use positivist approaches for showing economy growth has traditionally encouraged the application of a “sheer” rule of law concept, emphasizing on formal or instrumental aspects of legal system with very little of, or absent, attention to basic rights of human. The sheer rule of law seems to unquestionably justify almost all actions the State (and elites) takes; as though State is ruled by “law” but the law is created by and only for the ruling elites.

Substantive of law should not be detached from respect and protection for human rights and good governance. Hardly can be denied that law will follow socio-economy development and this, in turn, can change both formal assurance for human rights and protection of individual rights of the community.

Reviewing the situation, Southeast Asia countries can be grouped into authoritarian, semi-authoritarian, limited democracy, and in-transition to democracy relatively compared and contrasted to mature democracy in other countries, especially those in West.

State should apply law to any and every entity without discrimination, uphold it equally and impartially and independently make legal decisions, and at best possibility to align its legal practices with international human rights standards.

Some countries in ASEAN has ratified or adopted most of human rights instruments including ILO conventions. Nevertheless, some cases of violation against human rights and against union rights have been seriously brought into light especially slowness in those States to settle down such violations, let alone impunity for elites commit crimes against human rights.

Preamble of ASEAN Charter states clearly intention of the community to abide values of democracy, of fair law practices, of good governance principles, and to respect and protect human rights and freedom. However, some are pessimistic about ASEAN intention to abide those values, practices, and principles and to bring social justice and freedom if “traditional values” such as “policy of non-intervention” among the members and deliberation and consultation are still maintained.

  • Singapore and Brunei Darussalam still employ ISA, Internal Security Act. Such act is often used to suppress those who are opposition to the government. Government can imprison those who are charged committing sedition without a tribunal. Malaysia once has such act but in 2011 has revoked it. In Thailand, from 1 – 10 August 2013, such act is applied to anticipate anti-government protests;
  • Indonesia recently enforces Mass Organization Act with strong protest from trade unions. This act is repressive and controls either mass organizations or non-government organizations including labour unions (the act does not speak about categories of mass organization but it’s very clear that labour union are mass organization/non-government organization). Under the act, demonstration/rally union holds, for example rally for demanding wage hike, can be categorized into an activity which goes against government policy and, therefore, considered as an activity which is dangerous to state security;
  • The Vietnamese government is routinely jailing political dissidents and internet bloggers who question the Communist Party’s policies. So far, this year alone 46 bloggers and democracy activists have been persecution and jailed on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda;
  • Other human rights concerns in this region include constriction freedom of expression, assembly, ethnic groups and religion. Increasingly forced evictions and displacement are emerging in the context of ethnic and religion minority groups, also some of the country including of expanding state control of natural resources;
  • In Philippines: impunity and extrajudicial killings motivated by politics to journalists and labour activists.

The trade union movement and its development

The challenges of workers in ASEAN recently are very intense especially ones related to changes in labour market structure involving flexibility labour market and low wages in order to strengthened domestic market and to attract foreign investments. In addition, there is a political challenge in which for security of economic environment, political stability and national security have considerately become a must, making in the end labour and trade union have to be under control.

In 1998, Indonesia became the first country in Asia Pacific to ratify all fundamental ILO fundamental Conventions as an expression of its resolve to establish a democratic society based on the rule of law. In 1999, Cambodia followed suit, determined to put the past marked by gross human rights violations behind it.

All ASEAN states members of ILO and ratified numbers of ILO fundamental conventions (see below table).


Freedom of association and protection of the rights to organise meaning that workers should have the right, without distinction whatsoever in particular without discrimination in regards to occupation, should have the right to establish and to join the organisation of their choosing. The freedom of association is fundamental right to achieve political democracy.

The ratification of the convention expresses a commitment by a government to implement the principles and rights concerned. Six (6) countries have not ratified Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention which are Brunei Darussalam , Lao PDR, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In practice, there is no bar in those countries to grant “freedom” to labour wanting to establish and join union. But, it is essential for trade unions organization to function in full independence and freedom the countries ratify the convention so there will be a fully guarantee for the right of workers to establish organizations.

In practice, those who work in the precarious employment (outsourcing and atypical employment contracts) and informal workers have constraints on the exercise on these rights:

  • Precarious employment – anti union act is rampant: though no exclusion in the law for workers in the precarious employment to join union but threat on losing job hamper the workers to organise themselves;
  • Informal workers: the informal economy defined as a broad range of activities not fitting into the regulated economic framework, but exists all over this region. It covers everything from hawkers selling personal services on the streets or to private households to family farmers, casual agricultural labourers, domestic workers and unregistered contract labour. Though no legal impediments for informal workers to join the union but the lack of formal employment relationship excludes them from the rights to form and join union.

Ratification does not mean that the rights and principles concerned are implemented in full. There are indications of violations against worker rights and shortages of decent work are continuously faced by most workers in the region. Absenteeism of law enforcement culture is allegedly one of factors raising doubts over the implementation of the conventions.

In the public service, there are several examples of restrictions on the right of employees to organize, bargain collectively or engage in industrial action. This concerns above all services that are deemed to be “essential”. In spite of various advances, teachers and health service workers continue to face obstacles in exercising their right to organize and bargain collectively. In Singapore: a public officer is free to join any registered union but union membership is voluntary, but facing challenges on organizing shrinking due to corporatisation.

The right to strike continues to be subject of restrictions, such as: outright prohibitions; legal prerequisites which preclude its exercise in practice; restrictions on strikes in services which are not essential in the strict sense of the term, or by public servants who do not exercise authority in the name of the State. Though there are restrictions in exercising right to strike, somehow workers and trade unions manage to organise rally and demonstration. The strike is a rarity in Singapore, but in November 2012, about 200 SMRT bus drivers from China (migrant workers) managed to hold a strike protesting poor work conditions, for being discriminated compared with other bus drivers from Singapore and Malaysia and for airing their unhappy with salary and dormitory conditions they received. The last recorded strike happened in 1986 some 26 years ago. The drivers (only four) were charged under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act which states that anyone who instigates and incites others to take part in a strike or lock-out shall be guilty of an offence.

In Myanmar, the labour organisation law passed on 11 October 2013 allows workers to form trade unions with a minimum of 30 workers being members and legally go on strike and protest for workers’ rights but with condition as long as it does not block transport or security infrastructure. And, now FTUB (Federation of Trade Unions-Burma) is active again to run various activities of organising, training, and empowering their members. ITUC is opening office in Yangoon and to be headed by Shigeru Nakajima from Rengo (Japan). ITF relocated the office of seafarers union to Yangoon. PSI and other GUF’s has shared their missions and held a series of meeting with FTUB in addition has given their commitment to develop democratic trade unions.

Herewith below major situations and challenges faced by trade unions in ASEAN:

  • Limited/restriction for civil servants to exercise the rights for freedom of association and collective bargaining;
  • Liberalisation and privatisation of essential services;
  • Low wages and poor working conditions – in textile and garment industry;
  • Low level of unionisation and members commitment – also multiplicity of unions on the same sector or industry (also in same company) – lack of trade union unity and solidarity;
  • Union busting and repression – assertion of employers to challenge freedom of association and collective bargaining, criminalization of trade union activist and leaders;
  • Low union dues and difficulties in collection of union dues;
  • Poor public image of trade unions;
  • Lack of recognition of trade unions as equal social partner;
  • Increasing inequality – minimum wage setting, export processing zone (EPZ), outsourcing and contracting out;
  • Limited rights to exercise freedom of association and collective bargaining;
  • Child labour;
  • Migrant workers

For this, this unions must develop effective trade union strategies and actions, and actively play an important role in the challenging political and economic situation in this region.


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