This article draws on the plenary ‘The Fall & Rise of Labour?’ at the GLI International Summer School.
There’s a war going on in Asia – and it’s one that, unlike ISIS in Iraq or the chaos in Syria, is failing to make the headlines. It’s the war on workers that is taking place across much of the continent, according to the Executive Director of the Asia Monitor Resources Center in Hong Kong, Sanjiv Pandita.
The geographer David Harvey has termed this process ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Across the continent, workers are being forced off their land to make way for plantations, mining, or even real estate. They’re resisting – but employers and police are using the age-old methods of repression.
The recent surge in attacks on citizens has been propelled by the expansion of neoliberal policies in Asia, including controversial ‘export processing zones’ which lack any labour or environmental standards. In such areas, ‘everything is a commodity’ according to Pandita, particularly when inequality has soared in Asia, and particularly China, more than any other region of the world over the last 20 years.
And the figures are astonishing. 300 million people – almost the US population – are currently on the move in Asia, forced from rural land into the cities. This scale is ‘unprecedented at any time in the history of the industrial world’.
Of course, some end up in the factories that spring to mind in your head – the Yue Yuen factory in China where 80,000 shoe workers recently struck, or Foxconn where your iPhone was probably made. Most workers, however, don’t end up there.
Most will find themselves in an even more unregulated informal economy – picking shells, working informally on construction sites, gathering rubbish, and sex work. Informal work like this ‘employs’ up a quarter of Asia’s total population – one billion people. That’s 70% of total vulnerable employment in the world. It’s dangerous work, too. Over one million people die every year from work-related deaths in the region, according to conservative estimates.
These workers are not only dispossessed from their land and resources – forced out by multinationals with the help of the local state – but from their rights. And with very often no identifiable employer – whether because the supply chains are so long or because they are ‘self-employed’ – organising for better conditions is hard. But it can be done.
Following the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, the last year has seen some of largest strikes in Asia’s history. Again, the numbers are eye-watering. 100m workers in India went on strike last year – in one day. Millions stopped work in Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, the latter of which won a 50% wage hike in the textiles sector. Cambodia similarly saw a major general strike last December, met with a violent crackdown. And in Korea – mostly informal workers took radical action, particularly bricklayers.
Within these struggles, the question of unity between ‘formal’ and informal work has to be addressed. ‘We have to believe all working people are one – no matter what they are doing’, Pandita says. The question is how to bring all of them together. New ways of organising are occurring – the challenge, with no or secretive employers, is how and where to bargain. Instead, the bargaining must be political.
Even where informal workers are organising however, it is often separately. Home-based workers, sex-workers and street vendors are getting organised – but not as one.
In such situations, the question of leadership also emerges, somewhat problematically. Movements often draw external middle-class organisers who take over. Yet ‘the agents of change have to be workers themselves. We have to just be catalysts.’ Perhaps the current situation is just a temporary phase while grassroots leadership develops.
From Western workers, solidarity has to be genuine – ‘it can’t be based on pity’. Movements against ‘accumulation by dispossession’ are rising up, and the challenge for those in the global North is to offer solidarity without co-opting them. One thing is certain however – with living standards in the West being crushed by austerity, ‘all of us are workers now’. It’s time to start organising like we believe it.
Josiah Mortimer is a guest blogger for the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. The views expressed in this article are therefore solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of GLI.