Why East Asia needs its trade unions

By Christopher Ng

Posted at Apr 22 2015 09:13 AM | Updated as of Apr 22 2015 05:13 PM

Why East Asia needs its trade unions 1
A worker cycles past cars made by South Korea's biggest automakers Hyundai Motor Co and sister company Kia Motors at the company's shipping yard at a port in Pyeongtaek. Photo by Kim Hong-Ji, Reuters

(Christopher Ng is Regional Secretary, Asia and Pacific at UNI Global Union, Singapore. He is also a member of the Global Agenda Council on Human Rights.)

The global environment has been significantly changed by the process of rampant globalization and rapid technological innovations. We are now living in an era of job insecurity and a terrible imbalance in economic development, with one-fifth of the global population living in absolute poverty.

The UNDP 2013 Report showed that “the unfettered market economy has made the poor poorer and the rich richer”. Free trade and free capital without international and national regulation are unstable and unsustainable. They have not improved living standards but have instead increased inequalities between people, within and between countries.

A race to the bottom

In the last three decades or so, labour rights have been eroded in the battle of industries to secure niches in the global market. Businesses and employers claim that the issue is survival. That’s how they justify denying trade union rights to workers, hampering collective bargaining and cutting labour cost, resulting in a race to the bottom. That race punishes everyone, is at the root of the global financial crisis, and causes growing inequality everywhere.

The Asian Development Bank has argued that strengthening workers’ share in the economy is vital if we are to increase their consumption of goods and services, which would create a more balanced economy. This is the economic rationale behind the universal demand for living wages and workers’ rights such as the freedom of association and collective bargaining. And this is why protective labour laws are indispensable; labour institutions, particularly trade unions, are an essential component of the enforcement mechanism.

A positive-sum game

Like many trade unionists, I believe that global competition need not be a zero-sum game or even a negative equation for labour and capital. There is, and indeed there ought to be, a better way. This new approach is a race to the top – at the industry, national, regional and yes, global levels.

Let me start with a reminder. Business cannot go into business without fulfilling its responsibility to society, without according labour and the host community the respect that they deserve.

But we need to deepen the meaning of corporate social responsibility. As a trade unionist, my critical concern is that very few of these policies or statements involve making commitments to labour-related issues. When they do, they avoid committing to critical issues such as allowing worker to join trade unions and to engage in collective bargaining.

For the trade union movement, this is essential if corporations are to meet one of their basic social responsibilities, which is to ensure their employees enjoy an ILO-defined decent standard of work and employment and to work in partnership with their trade union.

Responsibility works both ways

Rights come with a responsibility. I believe that corporate social responsibility should be matched by union social responsibility. This means trade unions should not only be able to assert their rights and make collective demands based on employee interests, they should also understand the company’s position and the national economy in which they’re operating. Their demands should be based on this understanding and they should be reasonable. They should also accept that they will sometimes have to accept and implement painful decisions.

To ensure industrial harmony, social partnering must be based on the fundamentals of a progressive industrial relations system, where labour and management:

Recognize and respect each other’s basic rights and interests under the country’s constitution and laws, ILO conventions and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Accept that there are areas where the interests of both labour and management converge and diverge, and that both parties must try to accommodate one another’s interests to the greatest extent possible, and resolve conflicts in a harmonious win-win fashion

Collaborate closely to develop confidence and capacity-building mechanisms and nurture an environment supportive of the foregoing principles and processes; the development of mutual trust bred by mutual respect, goodwill, understanding and accommodation of each other’s interests must be the objectives of all strategies and activities

Companies, workers and unions have a vital role to play in fostering a strong spirit of partnership to facilitate business expansion, create better jobs, and promote decent work on sustainable terms and conditions of employment.

If we achieve this, we will have a “race to the top” instead of a “race to the bottom”, with business, workers and the community benefiting and sharing in the prosperity derived from an economy where people really matter.