Monday, April 13, 2009

More 'informal' Asian workers = more exploitation

Companies in Asia are relying more and more on labor in the “informal sector,” to the point that “informal workers” now comprise as much as two-thirds of the region’s labor force.

So says the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC) in a new report, “Rights for Two-Thirds of Asia.” The 274-page publication tracks the labor law and practices prevailing in the “unregistered” activities in the industrial, agricultural, and services sectors of 14 Asian countries, and finds that increased number of informal workers, most of them female, means increased exploitation of the most vulnerable.

“Overall, the Race to the Bottom penalizes virtually everyone in the labor force, particularly those in the informal majority – in both the formal and informal economies,” writes Rene E. Ofreneo in the introductory chapter of what is the latest edition of the AMRC’s Asian Labor Law Review.

Ofreneo, a professor of industrial relations at the University of the Philippines, poses a question raised in a 2006 UNDP report: The fast-growing Asian-Pacific region has embraced free trade, but has free trade embraced free trade? “The answer by the [22] contributors to the 2008 Labor Law Review is a uniform No,” she points out.

The most remarkable part of that failure is this. The informal workers are no longer just street vendors, home workers, or farm helpers.

They are also women and men who once did regular jobs such as packaging, maintenance, and security for a company and who now do the same work in the same office or factory. The only difference is that they are now working under an imposed “contract” status with fewer benefits and no job security.

When I was in Bangkok a few years ago, I learned of a bank that unilaterally decided to switch a part of its work force into a “contract” status, partly to cut them off from its unionized employees and thereby deprive them of benefits under its collective bargaining contract.

Now “the irregularization mania [is] sweeping Asia,” according to the AMRC. In fact, “the regulars, or standard employees, are now outnumbered by the ‘irregular’ or ‘non-standard agency, temporary, casual, part-time, migrant, and subcontracted workers.”

Looking at the big picture, Ofreneo attacks the policies of the World Bank and of the United States and Europe, which long preached their gospel of a regularization-free labor market. The World Bank still does, through a widely circulated annual publication, “Doing Business,” which holds up a development model with minimal labor legislation.

“One undeniable root cause” of today’s global financial meltdown, in the AMRC’s view, “is precisely the irrational exuberant belief in the so-called growth creating potentials of free financial, goods, and labor markets sans regulations.”

“Rights for Two-Thirds of Asia,” priced at $25, was prepared in cooperation with the Committee for Asian Women and Homenet Southeast Asia.

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