International Union Rights: Focus on Trade Union Rights in Asia

Asia is home to 4.5 billion people, comprising almost two-thirds of the population of the world. It is home to two of the world’s largest economies (China and Japan). The region is home to some of the world’s largest trade unions, but their capacity to push a workers’ rights agenda is marred by widespread repression and strong authoritarian currents. The Asia Monitor Resource Centre reflects on the ‘major anti-worker and anti-union state interventions’ that are taking place across the region. The picture is not encouraging overall, but AMRC take some heart from the fact that these attacks ‘have triggered massive pushback from the labour movement and civil society’. Sindhu Menon similarly finds inspiration from the gigantic strike called by the Joint Platform of Central Trade Unions, but reflects rather bleakly ‘is anybody listening?’.

Asia has a poor ratification rate for ILO Conventions 87 and 98, and has tended towards – in many countries – monopoly trade union systems, with fierce repression common elsewhere in the region. But this is changing, and there have been significant recent shifts, including the ‘imminent’ ratification of both Conventions 87 and 98 expected by South Korea (though it has been ‘imminent’ for some time now…), and the ratification of Convention 98 by Vietnam. Hung Chau Quoc examines how international law, driven by trade agreements, is bringing changes to Vietnam’s industrial relations system, and asks what structures might usefully promote collective bargaining in a manner adapted to local social and cultural factors. No such changes are expected of China, but Tim Pringle and Ben Selby acknowledge a certain appeal that country retains to socialists drawn to China’s enormous success in reducing poverty and its potential as ‘counterbalance’ to US hegemony. These observations notwithstanding, however, their damning account of recent developments leads them to conclude that ‘oppression is oppression’ and that on several fronts ‘the Chinese state is committing serial human rights abuses’. Anita Chan is similarly critical of events in Hong Kong, finding some optimism among newly formed trade unions, though some of these voices have already been ‘stifled’ and ‘it is clear that some unionists are demoralised’.

In much of the region there is a sense of unease, and few contributors to this edition write with sustained optimism. The health pandemic hangs like a shadow over all, despite the apparent success that China and a number of other States in the region have shown in controlling the outbreak. Christie Miedema tells us that ‘Bangladesh’s garment industry is built on poverty wages and rife with instances of union busting’ and ‘especially during the Covid-19 pandemic’ instances have risen of non-payment of dismissed workers or those injured on the job. Datuk Mohamed Shafie BP Mammal describes how a boom in education has seen Malaysia’s labour force changed by both inward and outward migration. Sawit Kaewvarn discusses the political upheavals in Thailand and presents a bleak view of the changing economy, particularly under the Covid-19 pandemic, describing ‘growing poverty, insecurity, and growing unemployment’. Kate Lappin of PSI laments that not only was ‘neoliberalism was making the pandemic worse’, but that the crisis which should have led to ‘rethinking orthodox economics’ instead provided cover for further acceleration of the neo-liberal project, with the signing of ‘the most secretive and least democratic trade agreement in the world’. Kate Middlemas of the ACTU shares this analysis, lamenting that many useful and effective responses to the pandemic ‘could breach such trade rules’.

It is tempting to imagine that - for all their flaws - the region’s long-established socialist States might at least have acted as a ‘counterbalance’ against neoliberalism, but with China, Vietnam and Laos signed up to the RCEP agreement such notions seem fanciful. Asia’s workers have proven time and again a capacity to mobilise on an extraordinary scale, but caught between an aging authoritarianism that is increasingly capitulating to rampant neo-liberalism, and with hostility to labour also under the kind of nationalism we see in India, the region faces a difficult and uncertain future for labour rights.

Daniel Blackburn, Editor

● Get full access to IUR journal

IUR journal brings together the latest news, views and information on trade union rights worldwide, covering key issues from varied perspectives. IUR has an accessible format that is appreciated around the world by an audience of trade unionists, legal practitioners and academics. The journal is available in print and digital formats, with an online archive dating back to 1993.

Previous editions:

IUR 224 ChinaIUR 221 South KoreaIUR 212 Minimum WageIUR 223 Right to Strike

Link to reportA Neoliberal Pandemic in Asia Kate Lapin

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and workers in Asia Pacific
Clare Middlemas

Collective bargaining complexity in Vietnam
Hung Chau Quoc

Link to reportAuthoritarianism in Asia and the effects on trade union rights
Asia Monitor Resource Centre

Disempowering Trade Unions by Law: A Death Blow to Workers’ Rights
Sindhu Menon

Capitalism in China: The Case for International Solidarity
Dr Tim Pringle and Ben Selby

Hong Kong’s New Trade Union Movement
Anita Chan

Labour Unity Against Global Capitalism: Create a New Society and People’s Democracy
Sawit Kaewvarn

Preserving the legacy of the Rana Plaza wake-up call
Christie Miedema

Labour situation in Malaysia: Changes and challenges
Datuk Mohamed Shafie BP Mammal

● Get full access to IUR journal


The International Centre for Trade Union Rights

Established in 1987, ICTUR is a non-profit organisation
based in London, promoting international trade
union rights through research and advocacy services.

Can Mezzanine, 7-14 Great Dover Street,
London, SE1 4YR, UK
Email: / Web: