Workers in the Developing Asia ‘Left Behind’

The lot of unionized workers in Asia’s booming economies has not improved in tandem with their countries’ growing affluence, a leading union official said on Wednesday.


China and India, for example, enjoyed vast growth even as the rest of the world grappled with the effects of the financial crisis, G. Rajasekaran, president of the International Trade Union Confederation (Asia Pacific), noted.


Jens Aarup, an official with the Danish Trade Council for International Development Cooperation, said that in Europe — where countries are still mired in the crisis — northern European nations, some of which have models similar to the tripartite system, have had a smoother ride.


“In the Scandinavian countries and Germany, for example, there is a very high rate of organization, with some 85 percent of workers as part of unions,” he said.


But unions in Europe’s southern part can be less organized and are hindered by factions that have competing interests based on political or religious ideologies.


Unions in such countries also tend to be bogged down by a mountain of labour laws which can lead to inflexibility, said Aarup, pointing to how workers in Greece and Spain had taken to the streets in a series of protests after their economies collapsed.


“So in that sense, you can find more comparison between the northern part of Europe and Singapore.”

China and India, for example, enjoyed vast growth even as the rest of the world grappled with the effects of the financial crisis, G. Rajasekaran, president of the International Trade Union Confederation (Asia Pacific), noted.


And while the countries are expected to be major economic players, the wages of workers and the number of high quality jobs there have not grown in tandem.


He attributed the trend partly to a lack of formal institutions that promote the cause of workers while meeting the competing needs of employers and governments.


“Collective bargaining gains were minimal and in some instances, workers were made to sacrifice long-established benefits,” he said at the opening of a three-day International Trade Union Confederation For Asia and The Pacific Regional Conference in Downtown East.


“Fortunately, our region came out of the crisis quickly, but new jobs created were mostly contract or irregular work.”


The conference, held here for the first time, brings together representatives from 27 countries to discuss labour relations and issues, such as unemployment and poor wages, faced by workers around the world.


Many delegates who spoke at the conference pointed to Singapore’s tripartite approach — which involves the Government, employers and unions working closely to address their competing demands — as a successful model that many in the developing world could learn from.


Speaking at the conference yesterday, Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong pointed to the vital role that this approach had played in helping Singapore weather many storms.


“This relationship of mutual trust and respect was developed and strengthened over the decades and is one that we will continue to nurture and deepen,” he said.


The 2009 financial crisis, for example, raised concerns of mass retrenchments and attendant social problems. But through programs such as the Jobs Credit scheme, where the Government subsidized the cost of retraining workers, businesses were able to shave costs on their operations instead of resorting to large-scale job cuts.

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