Trade Unions and Labor Organizations in Asia

by Daisy Arago
Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC)


I. Introduction

The trade union movement in Asia, as well as other alternative people’s movements, are entering into a new era of struggle in light of the recent changes wrote by the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the "New World Order" coined by U.S. President George Bush in the horrendous aftermath of the Gulf War. The years ahead will be difficult but exciting and revealing as they will likely challenge the level of maturity and sophistication that trade unions have developed over the past decades. These changes will necessitate trade unions to retrace the history of the movement, specifically in regard to the question of democracy, both in the workplace and within the union, the forms of organizing and the definition of the concrete bases and forms of solidarity.

What I am going to present does not make any pretension to be comprehensive nor do I wish to create that impression. Given the complexity of the subject and my limited time to study the movement, what I can only share is a limited understanding and some observations about the international phenomena; its likely implications for the trade union movement, trade union organizations and support groups in the region; and key issues that the movement has to confront.

II. International Phenomena

While many of the immediate problems that face Asian workers are local problems requiring local solutions, equally as many - and especially long-term problems - are closely related to the international phenomena described below.

  • Inter-capitalist competition as seen in the formation of trading blocs (the European Common Market, the free trade agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico and Japan’s economic domination of previously U.S.-dominated Southeast Asia) will change the political and economic relationships between countries.

  • The collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union has left the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the International Trade Secretariats (ITSs) as the only predominant international trade union centers. The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) has been severely weakened with many of its affiliates in those regimes switching their membership to ICFTU and the ITSs.

  • Changing industrial relations and the question of democracy in the workplace and within the union -changes that will require trade unions to go beyond the issues of collective bargaining agreements and the defense of trade union rights - will push trade unions to take up other concerns, such as the economic advancement of workers and preservation of the gains of trade union organizing, for example, in export processing zones (EPZs) and Newly Industrializing Countries (NJCs).

  • The formation of Rengo/JILAF (Japan Labor Union Confederation/Japan International Labor Foundation) in 1989 as one of the main promoters of the Japanese concept of enterprise unionism affects labor relations and the division of labor in the Asia-Pacific region. This division is based on a three-tier economic relationship with Japan as the main capital source, the NICs as middle countries and the least developed countries (LDCs) acting as sweatshops.

  • There is an increasing transnationalization of capital as well as labor, which relates to the question of whether or not there is a need for new forms of organizing and union actions.

  • Increasing militarization and repression and the influence of global political trends impacts civil and human rights, freedoms and responsibilities.

  • Capital is influencing the creation of international consumer and industrial markets.

  • The consciousness of trade unions and labor organizations about environmental issues, including environmental and health regulations and the environmental impact on natural resources, has grown.

  • Spontaneous movements and the actions of workers against underemployment and dislocation (south Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore) and poverty in underdeveloped countries in Southeast and South Asia are becoming more proliferous.

  • There are rising trends of independent and/or non-aligned union organizing, such as in the Philippines, south Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even China.

Looking at Asia, we see a region which is strongly affected by all of these factors. As Asia evolves toward becoming a more dynamic regional power with the presence of vast human and natural resources to offer, it is more vulnerable than most countries to the influence of external factors.

Therefore, when Asian unionists think of developing a relationship with international or other national labor or workers’ organizations, we have to think what this implies for the future, what benefits we stand to gain and what problems we expect to solve through these relationships. We might also think about what sort of contribution we might make to improving the lives of workers elsewhere who face greater hardships.1

III. International Unions in Asia

As the trade union movement or the federation of unions grows and develops and as problems they are confronting become complex and multinational in nature, consciously they feel the need for international linkages, cooperation and other organizations for support. Many of these links become structural in nature and carry certain obligations, certain conditions, responsibilities and sometimes also certain risks.

Gradually, as the domestic struggle for higher wages, job security, a reduction of working hours and social security has progressed, trade union leaders have recognized that common interests unite workers of different trades and industries, irrespective of the country.2 These have been the conditions that have prompted the formation of international unions.

For much of the century, the international union organizations have been dominated by three broad rival political traditions: social democracy represented by ICFTU, Christian democracy by the World Confederation of Labor (WCL) and the communist-oriented WFTU.

The Asian arms of these three main blocs are ICFTU-APRO (the Asia-Pacific Regional Office based in Singapore) and the WCL’s Brotherhood of Asian Trade Unions (BATU). WFTU does not appear to have a specific section in Asia. Each international confederation has associated with international unions covering specific trades or industries: the ICFTU is associated with the ITSs; the WFFU has its own Trade Union Internationals (TUIs); and the WCL has embryonic International Trade Federations (ITFs).

However, apart from the three main international federations, there are a number of political forces shaping international unionism in Asia. For example, the Asia-America Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) created by the American Federation of Labor- Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) -often criticized for its alleged links with the U.S. State Dept. and U.S. foreign policy - has been very active in the region since its formation in 1969. AAFLI has been providing considerable amounts of financial assistance to the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) and the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP). Some European unions, especially those in Scandinavia, Germany and Britain, also provide considerable resources for union development in Asia.

Politically, internationals, though seemingly competing with each other, also have varying degrees of cooperation, particularly in the case of the ICFI7U, WCL and to some extent with unions aligned with the AAFLI. Ideologically, they have been bound by their anti-communist stance.

However, as I have mentioned, the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, the apparent thawing of the Cold War, the propaganda victory of capitalism and the emergence of Bush’s "New World Order" have significantly changed the position of international unions. Whether we like it or not, ICFTU and ITS are now the single predominant international federations. It would not be surprising to learn that communist-oriented unions in Eastern Europe, including the [formerj Soviet Union, are affiliating with the ICFTU and will be advocating social democracy, which they strongly criticized previously. Whether we will welcome this as a positive or negative indication of growth in the international trade union movement or in the direction of Asian unionism is for the trade unions to decide when the priorities and programs of this new union manifestation have been defined.

IV. Affiliations and Activities in Asia

The ICFTU through its Asia-Pacific Regional Office coordinates the activities of its affiliates in the region. Its current concerns include: the abolition of child labor; the expansion of occupational safety measures; improvement for workers in free trade agreements, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT; a U.N. Code of Conduct for multinational corporations; and the integration of women in trade unions.3 Most of its Asian affiliates are known to have connections with the government, military or the business community. By having a close relationship with the government or the ruling party, many of the unions affiliated with the ICFTU enjoy an advantage over other unions in forging national labor agreements with the government, especially in terms of economic demands.

The recent addition to ICFTU’s Asian affiliates is the powerful and biggest union in Japan, Rengo, founded in 1989 and presently claiming a membership of 8 million. Japanese as well as other Asian unionists considered the formation of Rengo as the big leap backward in the Japanese labor movement. They expressed the opinion that Rengo/JILAF will be used by the government to be the main advocate and promoter of the Japanese style of management (based on enterprise unionism). This system believes that unions are part of the corporate family; therefore, workers and management should work in harmony. Since its formation, JILAF has sponsored a series of "educational programs," which invited unionists from all over the world, specifically from Asia, to come to Japan to be exposed to Japanese labor relations.

Our interview with activists and unionists from the Japanese People’s Movement ‘90 and the Allied Labor Union of Independence revealed that Rengo has the task of organizing pro-management yellow unions in Japanese overseas companies. They also affirmed that the Japanese government is channeling its Official Development Assistance (ODA) through JILAF to many Asian unions in an apparent move to propagate its concept of unionism and division of labor.4 Although there are indications that Rengo is involved in Japan’s foreign relations, this needs to be confirmed or denied through further research.

As for the WFTU, its affiliates in Asia are restricted to South Asia and the communist or socialist countries of Indochina and north Korea, though there are minor affiliates in the Philippines. Generally, its affiliates are considered progressive.

The last international union organization in Asia is the WCLBATU, which was formally established in 1963. In 1975, it claimed 4 million members in affiliated organizations from nine countries. Its early roots were in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia when four Jesuit priests in the 1950s helped to organize union groups as part of the Catholic church’s program in response to the growth of communism in workers’ movements. The main strength of BATU is its Philippine affiliate, the Federation of Free Workers (FEW), which claims 400,000 members. It is ironic that BATU grew as a Catholic workers organization strongly opposed to communism while some of the hardest working catholic labor organizers fighting for labor rights in some Asian countries are clearly sympathetic to leftist ideals.

V. Major Debates

A Tool for Western Governments...

Quoting Gary Busch, previously the assistant to the general secretary of the International Federation of Chemical Energy and General Workers’ Unions (ICEF):

"Governments and political parties have used the international labor movement as one of the principle vehicles for their covert interactions with political parties and governments in foreign nations. The international trade union movement has been, and continues to be, a vital tool of governments in the shaping of the political destinies of foreign political parties and states and is an important part of most nations’ foreign policy system."

Powerful European, American and Japanese unions have pursued -directly or indirectly - international programs independently of the international unions. For example, is the strong anti- communist stance of AFL-CIO international policies a result of U.S. State Dept. influence, or is it simply an expression of the strong anti-communist sentiments of American unionists? The same question could be asked about British, German and Japanese unions. In many cases, it is clear that the policy objectives, sources of finance and the choice of priorities of First World unions have been very close to the policies of their respective government.

B. ...Or Predators

Many trade unionists in Europe and America feel the need for some form of global unionism - structured international workers solidarity -and, therefore, see the need to work in close cooperation with trade unions in the South.

However, in spite of their.commitment to unionism and sometimes relative hardships in the North, they rarely face the political and economic conditions being experienced by workers and workers’ organizations in the South. Concepts of national liberation or anti-imperialism, for example, no longer appear on their agenda; and unlike many of their counterparts in the South, most of them are not engaged in any form of struggle or process to achieve democratic rights. Thus, acute differences in perspective and experience have led some Asian unions to be wary of Northern unionism and to carefully maintain their separate identities.

The caution arises in part from the suspicion that international unionism is a sugarcoated form of imperialism. Despite contrasts in economic development, political structures, religious and ethnic traditions, the political histories of Asian trade union movements share a common thread of foreign investment and domination. The union structures, practices and labor laws of countries in Asia, such as south Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, India and elsewhere, are just as much the result of support, imposition or manipulation by governments, political parties and trade unions in Europe or America as they are the result of the activities of the workers themselves. The international unions and independent international programs of national unions have been major protagonists in this process.5

VI. The Rise of Independent or Non-Aligned Trade Unions

The 1980s has been very significant to many trade unions and workers, particularly in Southeast and East Asia. This decade was the beginning of a new trend in organizing independent trade unions; thus, breaking the monopoly of national federations established by the governments in the 1960s and 1970s.

Independent unions are those unions who are neither pro- government nor pro-management nor affiliated to any international trade union federation. They can be characterized as democratic, militant, progressive and patriotic.

PHILIPPINES: In 1980, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), a progressive national trade union center, was established in the Philippines with an initial membership of 50,000. At present, it claims a total membership of 750,000 representing 11 national federations. It maintains close relationships with other labor alliances and federations outside its structure, such as the transport industry and women, health workers, government employees and teachers. In the Philippines, KMU is the main advocate of genuine trade unionism as well as militancy and nationalism. It is not surprising, therefore, to see or read anti-imperialist sentiments on its agenda.6

SOUTH KOREA: The Great June Struggle in 1987 - a combination of organized and spontaneous strikes and demonstrations by workers -gave birth to the formation of thousands of democratic trade unions, both at the factory and industry level. Of the unions existing in 1990, 65.6% of the total number were established in 1987.

The mass upsurge of democratic trade unions continued and culminated in the formation of Chonohyop or the Council of Korean Trade Unions (CKTU) on January 22, 1990. It claims a membership of 200,000 workers. Soon after its establishment, the government declared it an illegal organization, forcing unionists to operate in a semi-clandestine way.7

TAIWAN: The period between 1987 and 1989 was the "flowering" period for autonomous unionism in Taiwan after sudden relief from political suppression through the lifting of martial law after 40 years. Autonomy exists in the sense that executive committees are composed of "pro-worker" members, and they decide their work schedule with "free will" and support from union members.8

The "flowering" period thus resulted in a considerable number of autonomous trade unions with pro-worker unionists occupying a high proportion of important positions in unions - a "high proportion" meaning considerably more than before 1987 when most unions were ineffective in negotiating with employers.

In addition to these changes, several non-union movement centers were established that have three different orientations, although not mutually exclusive, that are outlined below.

i. The first group of unions includes those which have tried aggressively to preserve their "autonomy" by working hard to educate their members and to keep close contact with their members. They have tried all means to stand against the management’s dividing tactics and to win over the pro-management workers during union elections. Examples are the Airport Workers Union and the China Times newspaper unions.

ii. Unions and labor groups which have a strong political orientation and which advocate their political thoughts and beliefs comprise the second group. These groups are divided into:

  • Those advocating the reunification of Taiwan and mainland China, such as the Labor Rights Association and the Labor Party, which were established in 1988; and

  • Those advocating Taiwanese independence, such as the Taawanese Association for Labor Movement (TALM), the National Autonomous Federation of Independent Trade Unions (NAFITU) and the Far East Textile unions in southern Taiwan. NAFITU is composed of 25 trade unions from government enterprises, manufacturing industries, transport and other industries.

iii. Unions or labor centers whose factories are concentrated in the EPZs or whose workers are victims of factory closures make up the last category. The unions try to organize these workers to raise reasonable demands, such as compensation for the factory closure or reopening of the company. The main organization is the Taiwan Federation of Union Cadres (TFUC). Located in Kaohsiung, an important cargo port and industrial district, TFUC has about 70 members from different industries.9

CHINA: The Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation was organised in 1989. Following the military crackdown against the democracy movement on June 4 of that year, the federation was severely weakened because of the participation of its members in the movement. However, reports from China reveal that the remaining members of the federation have continued to organise clandestinely inside and outside Beijing. 10

NEPAL: The General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) was established on July 20, 1989, at the height of the democracy movement against the panchayat system in that country. GEFONT emerged from four underground federations formed in the 1980s. At present, it is composed of 10 trade unions from the hotel, transport, garment and textile, press, garbage cleaning, trekking, carpet, plantation and electrical industries. GEFONT, which espouses to be a genuine and revolutionary trade union movement, claims that it is the national representative of one million workers. It maintains friendly relations with unions in some Asian countries, and it is studying ties with both the WFTU and ICFTU although it has a policy of non-alignment.

Politically and ideologically, GEFONT is a part of the leftist movement in the country, but it maintains its independence from any political party or groups. However, there are some members of the federation who are either influenced by or who are members of the Unified-Marxist Leninist Party (UML), the main opposition party. In last May’s election, GEFONT supported UML candidates who won 69 seats in Parliament.

HONG KONG: After years of organizing, the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) was formally launched in August 1990. It claims a membership of 100,000 from different industries. The formation of CTU was welcomed by many local unionists as a turning point in Hong Kong unionism for its non-aligned politics. Being independent, CTU tries to be an alternative to the sharply divided trade unions in Hong Kong - the pro-Beijing unions represented by the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and the pro-Taiwan unions represented by the Trade Union Council (TUC)11

INDONESIA: In 1990, the first free trade union in Indonesia, the Serikat Buruh Merdika - Setiakawan (Solidarity Free Trade Union), was formed. At the time of its founding, Setiakawan claimed to have 3,000 members and 10,000 sympathizers12.

VII. Party-Influenced or Party-Affiliated Unions and Workers Parties

Unions in South Asia or the Indian subcontinent share a distinct experience of unionism because of their high level of politicization in this part of Asia. This phenomenon has occurred through the evolution of trade unions, which have either organized themselves into a political party or parties have organized unions to win their demands through both open and underground means.

This phenomenon has raised two prominent arguments among unions around the region. The first argument is that political parties are organizing workers in an effort to build their political base in pursuit of their ideologies. The second argument is that workers organizing political parties are motivated by their recognition that workers’ interests should be represented politically, which they feel can be better achieved by encouraging affiliation with a political party.

In Sri Lanka, for example, the orientation of trade unions is identified through their party affiliation, which is true in India as well. My personal interviews with these unions revealed that they believe in the political struggle of workers; thus, a necessity to be affiliated. In some cases, party affiliation also provides them with security, especially in times of great repression.13

VIII. Non-Government Organizations and Labor Networks

Other than the trade unions, a number of other bodies exist which also play a role in the development of Asian trade unionism. These include charitable foundations and non-governmental international development agencies, church organizations, campaign groups and independent grant-aided research and information service centers.

These groups may or may not cooperate with formal trade union organizations, and they cover a spectrum of ideologies and beliefs with some leaning to the left and others to the right. Some have an international perspective; others are local in character. Some have very narrow economic agendas; others incorporate labor issues in a wider agenda for social development.

IX. Problems and Prospects

Asian unions currently represent the same percentage of their overall workforce as unions in North America and Western Europe, i.e., about 10% to 18%. Asia, excluding the Middle East, has a total workforce of 1.37 billion, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review Yearbook 1990. While they may be unlikely to reach the Scandinavian levels of 75% or more, they are a growing force in Asia’s political machinery. The development of increasingly outspoken and assertive independent democratic trade unions adds to the political significance of this force.

As Asia becomes a more vigorous and dynamic political and economic power, so too are the problems besetting the trade unions; so too is the necessity for Asian unions to assert their role to become a significant force in international unionism and in shaping the region’s future.

One of the biggest problems that unions have to address are economic issues and the question of poverty. South and Southeast Asian workers are among the lowest paid workers in the world with their daily income ranging from US$.62 to US$5.00. In this region, poverty is not just simply a result of low wages but is deeply-rooted as a result of governments’ poor economic planning, which is oftentimes dependent, if not completely subservient, to the domination of foreign capital.

In NICs, workers and unions are now being threatened with decreasing job opportunities, if not loosing them. Several factors can be identified for this: industrial or rather economic restructuring - meaning a shift from previously labor-intensive manufacturing industries, such as garments and shoes, to capital- or technology-intensive industries, such as services, banking and commerce - and increasing labor costs. Garment and shoe production in these countries is being pulled out of some countries, thus, displacing workers - the majority of whom are women. Governments in these countries have reasoned that the changes are necessary because of labor shortages, such as in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, and increasing production costs.

Companies from these countries have moved their production facilities to either Southeast or South Asia where they enjoy several privileges, such as tax holidays, cheap and non-unionized labor and access to the international market.

Equally important is the question of the right to organize. In East and Southeast, although legally workers are allowed to organize, independent attempts and initiatives of workers have been met by severe repression. In south Korea, the average arrest rate is 1.5 workers daily; in Taiwan, Far East Textile workers who staged a strike a few months ago were charged NT$40 million (US$1.6 million) by management for the loss of profits, or the workers would face years of imprisonment. This means even the grandchildren of the workers’ children will owe money to the company. In the Philippines in 1990, there were 13 unionists summarily executed, and others either were killed in the picket line or just disappeared. There are also thousands of cases of labor rights violations, which I will not even begin to enumerate.

In addition to economic problems, trade unions, whether we accept it or not, face fragmentation within the movement, created not only by political affiliation but also by ethnic origins and even religion. Communalism and religious fundamentalism, especially in South Asia or Malaysia, have been a powerful tool wittingly or unwittingly used by the government to weaken, if not paralyze, the trade union movement. The longstanding ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, for instance, and the government’s subsequent declaration of a state of emergency and their military offensives against the separatist Tamils have wreaked parties and people’s organizations.

Although the situation is quite depressing both internationally and regionally, we need to address questions and concerns created by these circumstances, such as:

  • How do we deal with the problem of repression, militarism?

  • How do we preserve or advance the economic movement of workers gained after years of organizing and unionism?

  • How do we deal with the strategies of transnational corporations (TNCs), such as capital withdrawal and factory closures? (When workers stage a strike, the company shuts down the factory making a strike, supposedly the most effective means for workers to attain their goals, a futile exercise.) What could be other forms of organizing and actions?

  • In recognition of the importance of international solidarity, what are the concrete bases, forms and priorities, and how do we accomplish solidarity? Is solidarity anti-imperialism or foreign intervention? Is it South-South or North-South solidarity? What kind of political projects do we undertake? Are they necessary?

  • How do we relate with other trade unions - international, national or local? What are the benefits that we are expecting to gain, the problems that we hope to resolve or the benefits that we can offer?

In all of these questions, I dare not give suggestions because of my belief that it is more appropriate for the organizations or the trade unions to answer as they are the main subjects of whatever actions or relationships that the development of the international trade union movement will require.


  1. Derek Hall, "International Unions in Asia," a paper presented at a seminar organized by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, March 1991.

  2. A.D. Coldrick and Philip Jones, International Directory of the Trade Union Movement, McMillan Press, London, 1979, pp. 6-10.

  3. Dave Spooner, Partners or Predators: International Unions in Asia, AMRC, Hong Kong, 1989.

  4. Daisy Arago, an interview with Japanese unionists, Manila, September 1991.

  5. Dave Spooner and Derek Hall, International Unions in Asia.

  6. The Labor Situation in the Philippines, Kilusang Mayo Uno, June 1991.

  7. Minju-no-jo: South Korea’s New Trade Unions, AMRC, 1988, and "Trade Unions in Korea," Korea Labor News, November 1990.

  8. Ho Suet Ying, Taiwan after a Long Silence, AMRC, 1990.

  9. A research report on the labor situation in Taiwan, AMRC, July 1990.

  10. Moment of Truth: The Beijing: Autonomous Workers Federation, AMRC, 1991.

  11. B. Rimal, The Nature of Unions and Capitalists in Nepal, GEFONT, 1991.

  12. Asian Labor Update, Issue No. 4,AMRC,June 1991.

  13. A research report about trade unions in Sri Lanka, AMRC, May 1990.

(This article is an edited version of the paper that was presented at the Trade Union Study Meeting on TNCs, October and November 1991, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Bangkok, Thailand.)