The secret war on Asia’s workers

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When everything is a commodity, labour rights count little, says Josiah Mortimer.

There’s a war going on in Asia – and it’s one that, unlike ISIS in Iraq or the chaos in Syria, is failing to make the headlines. It’s the war on workers that is taking place across much of the continent, according to the Director of the Asia Monitor Resources Center in Hong Kong, Sanjiv Pandita.

The geographer David Harvey has termed this process ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Across the continent, workers are being forced off their land to make way for plantations, mining, or even real estate. They’re resisting – but employers and police are using the age-old methods of repression.

The recent surge in attacks on citizens has been propelled by the expansion of neoliberal policies in Asia, including controversial ‘export processing zones’ which lack any labour or environmental standards. In such areas, ‘everything is a commodity,’ according to Pandita, particularly when inequality has soared in Asia – especially in China – over the last 20 years.

And the figures are astonishing: 300 million people – almost as many as the entire population of the US – are currently on the move in Asia, forced from rural land into the cities. This scale is ‘unprecedented at any time in the history of the industrial world,’ according to Pandita.

Of course, some end up in factories whose names have become infamous, such as the Yue Yuen factory in China, where 80,000 shoe workers recently went out on strike, or Foxconn, where your iPhone was probably made. Most workers, however, don’t end up there.

Vulnerable workers, dangerous work

Most will find themselves in an even more unregulated informal economy – picking shells, working on construction sites, gathering rubbish, and sex work. Informal work like this ‘employs’ up to a quarter of Asia’s total population – one billion people. That’s 70 per cent of total vulnerable employment in the world. It’s dangerous work, too. Over one million people die every year from work-related deaths in the region, according to conservative estimates.

These workers are not only dispossessed from their land and resources – forced out by transnationals with the help of the local state – but from their rights. And with very often no identifiable employer – whether because the supply chains are so long or because they are ‘self-employed’ – organizing for better conditions is hard. But it can be done.

Following the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, the past year has seen some of the largest strikes in Asia’s history. Again, the numbers are eye-watering: 100 million workers in India went on strike last year – in one day. Millions stopped work in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Bangladesh, the latter winning a 50-per-cent wage hike in the textiles sector. Cambodia similarly saw a major general strike last December, which was met with a violent crackdown. And in Korea, mostly informal workers took radical action, particularly bricklayers.

Within these struggles, the question of unity between ‘formal’ and informal work has to be addressed. ‘We have to believe all working people are one – no matter what they are doing,’ Pandita says. The question is how to bring all of them together. New ways of organizing are occurring – the challenge, with no or secretive employers, is how and where to bargain. Instead, the bargaining must be political.

Even where informal workers are organizing, however, it is often separately. Home-based workers, sex workers and street vendors are getting organized – but not as one.

In such situations, the question of leadership also emerges, somewhat problematically. Movements often draw external middle-class organizers who take over. Yet, says Pandita, ‘the agents of change have to be workers themselves. We have to just be catalysts.’ Perhaps the current situation is just a temporary phase while grassroots leadership develops.

From Western workers, solidarity has to be genuine – ‘it can’t be based on pity’. Movements against accumulation by dispossession are rising up, and the challenge for those in the Global North is to offer solidarity without co-opting them. One thing is certain, however – with living standards in the West being crushed by austerity, all of us are workers now. It’s time to start organizing like we believe it.

Josiah Mortimer is reporting on the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College from 7-11 July. You can follow all of the conference online Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter: #ISS14. This article draws on the plenary ‘The Fall & Rise of Labour?’

(Originally published by the New Internationalist magazine.)

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