By Apo Leong

This paper begins with how labour is aversely affected by globalisation, masterminded by the Multinational Corporations [MNC] and the superpowers, with special reference to the attack on labour under the recent Asian financial crisis. It further describes various forms and stories of resistance by labour and community groups. The last part addresses the current debate on social clause, core labour standards and codes of conduct.


Before 1997, HK people were so complacent, thinking that they could enjoy the best of both worlds after unification with China, under the famous 'one country two systems' formula as promised by the PRC leaders. Globalisation was then not a threat to HK as it has always been under a virtually free economy and many people claim HK actually benefits a lot more from free trade and globalisation. However, the rolling financial crisis soon hit HK economy badly, and those who suffer most are the working class and the marginalised of the society. (Hong Kong Social Security Society) HK NGOs, labour unions began to grasp the real meaning of globalisation and to learn eagerly from people's movement of other countries how to confront the unjust onslaught by neo-liberalism that is the prevailing motto of the present globalisation drive.

For us, globalisation is never a new term, some even coin it as a new form of imperialism. In various degrees, most of the activists hold very negative opinions. On the other hand, history has shown that the international solidarity of the working class movement erupted hand in hand with globalised capital, dated back to the birth of the First International. The ideology and practice of internationalism is now being revigorised all over the world.

What Globalisation Means to Workers

Globalisation of product markets has promoted competitive pressure and division of labour on an unprecedented scale and speed.

For the winners, globalisation is often presented as both desirable and inevitable: It is desirable that a borderless world economy of free trade and the free movement of capital and people be created, and it is inevitable that this will happen. The dominant vision of globalisation promises that the transformation of the world economy into a single market and a single production site will lead to increasing wealth and prosperity, and dynamic growth that will deliver better wages and jobs. Even for those who see that only a small minority will benefit from the current stage of globaisation, it is believed that the majority of the working people will benefit from this in the long run. Those who fail to submit to globalisation will be punished with a 'straightjacket' such as the structural adjustment programme and other austerity measures imposed by the World Bank, IMF and others. (Asian Labour Update No.22, Friedman, Economist, Landsbury)

Those who oppose globalisation define it differently. Some call it an 'attack' on workers and their standard of living. Others call it a 'strategy' for capitalism to be able to survive. Some go further by calling it a new form of colonisation or even a 'world class war'.

To summarise, we believe that globalisation:

  • is increasing world poverty and lowering living standards of workers
  • is increasing the gaps between the rich and poor countries
  • is increasing the gaps between the rich and poor within countries/ workers.

For example, the assets of the 200 richest people are greater than the combined income of the more than 2 billion people. Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are MNCs. Eighty countries have lower GDP incomes today than they did a decade ago.

As a result, the vast majority of workers in the world fall outside the formal labour market and associated regularly mechanism, and their number is growing steadily under the rapid expansion of the IT or new economy. (International Labour and Research Information Group)

Labour Pains Under Globalisation

It is not difficult to name the dark side of globalisation from the workers' own experiences.

At the macro level, we witness wider gap of rich and poor, or greater inequality, mainly due to the weakening of the state or through privatisation. The state was deprived of the economic leverage as an employer, as a regulator and machinery of redistributing the social product under globalisation, and therefore is weakened to influence economic and labour, social welfare policy. China, HK are a notable examples. (South China Morning Post cartoon, Oxfam) For example, the average monthly income for the poorest 10% of the HK people was only 1,400HKD, a drop of 20% compared with 1990 level whereas the 10% of the richest has a monthly income of 26,000HKD which is 45% growth compared with 1990 level. (Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Union) In some of the Asian countries, the biggest losers are farmers who cannot compete with the dumping of agricultural products from the west. Thus, more and more farmers are forced to become migrant workers looking for jobs in the urban setting, and even in the overseas labour market. For example, it was estimated that 10 million Chinese farmers would be displaced when China joins WTO, and the income of the rural population would suffer from minus 2%. (Research Report on China's Entry into WTO)

At the plant or industrial level, flexibility, informalisation have become the favorite terms used over and over again to suppress the labour movement, wages and the welfare of the rank and file workers. Under flexibility, the following observations are made -

  • Reducing the core of permanent workers, while increasing the proportion of temporary, homebased and casual employees.
  • Increasing the use of women, apprentices, and migrants.
  • Subcontracting the production of components previously manufactured within the factory.
  • Subcontracting services like transport, packaging, maintenance and security, which are carried out on factory premises.
  • Increasing the number of shifts per day or the use of overtime.
  • Replacing pay systems based on working time and length of service based piece rates and bonuses or individual appraisals.
  • Introducing influences from external trade union organisations by either eliminating unions or establishing a controllable union.
  • Introducing internal training systems, which facilitate redeployment of workers within the factory or entreprise.

Furthermore, labour intensification is widely adopted through developing a 'lean-mean' core of workers which basically means the reduction in the number of workers in a workplace thereby increasing the workload of the remaining or core staff. It is charcterised by long working hours, heavy workload or more quota, setting higher qualification level on age and educational attainment and assigning additional tasks (so called multi-skilled) to a person. Under this structured system, workers are trained and given the impression that they are the 'company's strategic partners' towards global competitiveness - for the company in the international market and for the workers in the labour market. For example, workers in the Walmart supermarket chains are called 'associates'. They work under greater stress and close surveillance, without much privacy. As more advanced information technology is being deployed in office, production and distribution, workers are also pressurised to increase their productivity and to make more sacrifices.

Other visible but long term impacts include loss of job (mass layoffs), wage and welfare cuts, as well as higher incidence of occupational health and safety accidents or related problems.

According to the latest International Confederation of Free Trade Union annual survey (2000), no country in Asia is spared from accusations of trade union rights violations including assassination of unionists in Nepal, disappearance or imprisonment in China, Burma, Bangladesh, use of strikebreakers in the Philippines and Indonesia. From Thailand to Singapore, Malaysia to Cambodia, it is still as difficult as ever to gain recognition for a trade union: administrative barriers, excessive costs, slow proceedings. Many employers, including certain MNCs, will stop nothing to prevent the approval of a trade union and avoid collective bargaining, sometimes in blatant contradictions to government directives. In addition to this, bans on strikes and on forming unions in the civil service are widespread, as is the lack of protection against discrimination for union members or the obstacles to organise legal strikes. The fiercest opponents to a social dimension to globalisation are also to be found in Asia. Yet the economic crisis which struck at the heart of this continent proved the need for the safeguarding the trade unions have long been arguing for, particularly where there is no or weak social security system. (Challenging Globalisation, Asian Food Workers, ALU, Labouring in the Millenium, Occupational Safety and Health Rights, Trade Union World - Multinational Monitor, Nov.2000)

People Strikes Back

Here I would like to cite a few cases, proving that we are not impotent, nor hopeless, nor helpless in fighting back.

A. Toy campaign

Sparked off by two related but horrific fires in Bangkok and Shenzhen seven years ago, 60 labour organisations and NGOs groups formed a united front to demand reasonable compensation to the victims, and better health and safety, working conditions for the toy workers in the region. Through repeated direct actions, exchange, lobbying and education, we are able to push some MNCs to pay additional compensation to the victims, to be aware of the plight of the toy workers. One evaluator found that, 'The strength of the toy campaign lies in its persistent capacity to lobby and do groundwork in its thrust to promote the safety and welfare of workers, especially those who are disempowered and those who have no venue to articulate their issues in the context of the oppressive system of subcontracting and unethical work practice of MNCs. The campaign also provided direction on the current advocacy on workers' issues linked to macro-issues of globaisation and call for workers' empowerment.' (EZE assessment report)

B. Korean Confederation of Trade Unions general strike

The nationwide general strike in 1997 by South Korean workers in protest against the passage of anti-worker labour laws has captured the imagination of workers throughout the world. It has done so because for workers everywhere, the amendment to the labour laws by the South Korean government constituted an attack on workers' rights and trade union rights that has become a global trend. International solidarity was particularly strong in mass assemblies inside and outside Korea. It is an act of defiance from below which has revived the possibility mass collective action, directly challenging the logic of global capitalism's search for ever-increasing flexibility. According to the organisers, this general strike was the first major one in 50 years and it lasted for a full twenty days. They learnt that trade union is not existing for its own members, but to support members of the general society as well. They also wanted to make groups in other countries aware of these issues, which may be common in their countries as well. As a result, the position of the new and independent trade union center, KCTU has become consolidated. (ALU)

C. MAI, N30, A16, S11, S26, Chiangmai, Seoul, etc.

In 1998, the pro-globalisation side suffered a setback. In the face of widespread international opposition, the OECD suspended negotiations for a Multilateral Agreement on Investment. The MAI would reduce the power of OECD countries to place restrictions on foreign investment. The struggle against globalisation took a climax when twenty thousand people stormed the WTO meeting in Seattle in Nov 1999, highligting the people's agenda over the corporate greed - fair trade over free trade. Close alliance was made among labour, environmental, women, human rights groups throughout the world. Mass gatherings and direct action took place again and again in the following meetings of World Economic Forum, ADB, G8, WB/IMF, ASEM in the year. The Economist magazine, the flagship of neo-liberalism, acknowledged that, 'They (the protestors) are right that the most pressing moral, political, and economic issue of our time is third-world poverty. And they are right that the tide of "globalisation", powerful as the engines driving it may be, can be turned back.' The struggle of the people against neo-liberal globalisation is continuing without interruption.

Alternatives to Globalisation

Broadly speaking, there are several major counter measures formulated by the labour movement.

For the mainstream trade union movement (ICFTU), they prefer having 'social dialogue', giving a 'human face' to globalisation by linking trade agreements with social clauses or more recently, core labour standards including the right of workers to organise and bargain collectively, no forced labour or child labour, and equal remuneration and equal opportunities for all. Their argument is, without it, trade liberalism and globalisation undermine workers' rights. However, the World Bank, many governments of developing or third world countries, and some unions, labour groups especially those from the south have objected. They say that their only competitive advantage to developed countries is cheap labour, and the social clause will stop their products from being imported into developed countries. It is a disguised form of protectionism and an invasion of their right to self-determination. The irony is, they get the support from many other right wing or conservative groups for various reasons.

Instead, some labour movement bodies have the strong opinion that the basic problem is globalisation itself, and the WTO or similar multilateral bodies are not democratic, transparent or accountable to the people, should be abolished. The second area of concern is who will become the police with the adoption of social clause, some would prefer the ILO to play the role. But if the ILO remains as a toothless tiger, its effectiveness cast much doubt. And if sanction is to be applied, who has the right to decide, and who has the right to do so?

The similar set up can be seen from the code of conduct movement. More and more MNCs adopt various codes of conduct, some at international level, some at regional or country level, or even at industry level. Various models of verification and monitoring are being promoted such as SAI8000, GRI, and others. For us, this is a smokescreen and a good public relations show by the MNCs, where genuine workers' participation or consultation is very minimal, if at all. This leads to the privatisation of labour rights. The police work is mainly taken over by the professionals such as the auditing firms or pseudo NGOs, which earns a fortune and create their employment opportunities, whereas workers would become more dependent on external saviors rather than arming themselves (Labour Rights in China [LARIC]). Here we observe many big NGOs or trade unions are too eager to occupy the musical chair of this engagement game, manipulated by the MNCs and the super states such as WB, with thorough discussion with their members or their partners, especially those from the south. So, more and more initiatives are dumped to us, and we are treated as their guinea pigs to justify how wonderful these initiatives work for the poor.

While we do not rule out some positive side of these initiatives or instruments, where they claim can provide a space for organising and lead to certain improvement of working conditions. Their success is rest to be seen, because we are not yet convinced of any sustainable breakthrough model that can really work. We are particularly concerned that more attention and resources should be made to generate, re-invent, substantiate the growing independent, bottom up labour movement. Workers' education and grassroots organising is indispensable.

As a matter of fact, much more cross border solidarity are taking place, with the help of advanced IT and a new generation of committed labour activists who have less historical burdens. Innovative ideas, tactics and materials are used for better understanding of globalisation to pave ways for strategic alliance with other social forces in defending workers' rights.

To conclude, I would like to quote the closing sentence of the Seoul Declaration by the "ASEM 2000 Seoul Action Day Against Neoliberalsim" (Oct 20, 2000) - We are confident! Another world is before us! Let us change the world.

Major References

  1. Rowley and Benson, Globalisation and Labour in the Asia and Pacific Region, 2000
  2. AMRC, Asia Pacific Labour Law Review, 2000
  3. Anderson and Cavanagh, Field Guide to the Global Economy, 2000
  4. Manipon and Perez, Challenge Globalisation: Solidarity and Search for Alternatives, 1999
  5. Against the Currect, 86/87/88, 2000
  6. ILRIG, An Alternative View of Globalisation, 1998
  7. Burkett and Hart-Landsberg, Development, Crisis and Class Struggle, 2000
  8. The Economist, Sept. 23-29, 2000
  9. Asia-Pacific Journal, Dec 1999
  10. Greenfield, The World Bank's 'Effective State' in East Asia, 2000
  11. Mazur, Labour's New Internationalism, Jan/Feb 2000
  12. After Seattle: A New Internationalism, Monthly Review, July/Aug 2000
  13. Wrokers' Education, July 2000
  14. Landsbury, Exploring New Trends in Employment Relations and New Approaches to Work in the 21st Century, 2000
  15. Trade Union World, Sept. 2000
  16. Wong, Is Our Resistance as Trans-national as Capital, Nov 2000
  17. Globalisation Monitor, various issues, 2000
  18. Asian Labour Update, various issues
  19. Labour Magazine by World Confederation of Labour, 2000/3
  20. Waterman and Munck, Labour Worldwide in the Era of Globalisation, 1999
  21. Waterman, Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalism, 1998
  22. Public Service International, The Missing Link, 2000
  23. Bhattacherjee, Globalising Economy, Localising Labour, 2000
  24. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 1999
  25. Toussaint, Your Money or Your Life, 1999

**[Apo Leung is the Executive Director of Asia Monitor Resource Center. The above paper was presented at the consultation on Ideology, Faith and People's Movement in the New Millenium organised by CCA-Faith, Mission and Unity, Chiangmai, 8-11 Nov 2000.]