By Suluck (Fai) Lamubol

On the 7th of October 2007, the World Day for Decent Work was launched by global trade unions and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to advance the demands central to the rights of workers around the world. Since then it has been celebrated and used to mobilise workers around the world to demand Decent Work. 

Decent Work is mainly comprised of four main pillars: standards and rights at work, employment creation and enterprise development, social protection and social dialogue. Not only is Decent Work crucial for achieving labour rights for all workers, Decent Work together with living wage is imperative to tackle income inequality and shape participatory democracy in our society. As a result of neoliberal globalisation, global inequality has continued to grow as wealth has become increasingly concentrated with a rich few. In 2018, the top 26 wealthiest people owned as much as the 3.8 billion poorest people in the world. In fact, a recent ILO assessment shows that ten per cent of workers receive 48.9 per cent of total global pay, while the lowest-paid 50 per cent of workers receive just 6.4 per cent.

Degrading Workers’ Rights And Protection In The Asia Pacific 

According to ITUC 2019 index, Asia Pacific is the second worst region in the world, after the MENA region, when it comes to workers’ rights. The region saw a dramatic increase in attacks against trade unionist and violations of workers’ rights to organise and strike which in turn impedes workers from improving working conditions and places them in dangerous situations. Philippines, Bangladesh, and Kyrgyzstan rank in top ten worst countries for workers. At least 10 trade unionists were murdered in the Philippines in 2018.   

Through the Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR) on labour rights, a number of women workers groups in Asia have documented evidence of how current labour laws and policies are impact and violate women’s human rights. Through FPAR initiatives, women workers have found that regardless of whether they belong in the formal or informal sector, manufacturing or agriculture, public or private sphere, they all share the realities of receiving poverty wages, being subject to sexual harassment, precarious employment, lack of social protection, as well as facing barriers to rights to organise.    

Rights At Work – Wages And Rights To Organise  

One of the core components of Decent Work is fundamental rights at work. This includes freedom of association, elimination of employment discrimination, fair wages and decent working conditions. Through FPAR, it was found that while many of the workers are not aware of their rights, employers are actively undermining workers’ efforts to organise and campaign. Between 2017-2019, All Adivasi Women’s Association of Assam (AAWAA) led FPAR to investigate the working conditions of women tea workers in tea plantations in Assam, northern India. 

They found that women workers still earn less than the minimum wage despite the fact that it is legally stipulated as low as 2.45 USD. The minimum wage is also far below the calculated living wage calculated which should be 9 USD. Moreover, workers in the tea plantations have to pay from their own pockets for healthcare and medicines when they fall ill. When union activists try to intervene in the situation, they instead face threats from the company management.  

In one of the biggest areas for palm oil production, palm oil plantation workers in Kalimantan, Indonesia face similar issues. Through the research and organising work done by The Palangkaraya Ecological and Human Rights Studies (PROGRESS) to examine the working conditions of the plantation workers, the workers in selected sites have been agitating for Decent Work and living wages from the company management. As a result, 405 workers including 14 union leaders have been unilaterally terminated between October 2018-March 2019 without cause and without severance pay which constitutes a breach of national labour laws. This is despite the fact that the company campaigned by the activists was a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an initiative certifying companies to ensure that they follow sustainable production standards that respect environmental protection and workers’ rights. 

Precarious Employment

Another emerging trend for workers in the Asia Pacific region is the rise of precarious employment. Precarious employment come in various forms, including contractual work, seasonal, on call work, or home-based work. It is also described as non-standard employment which is poorly paid, insecure and unprotected. Although precarious employment has become more evident and visible in our digital era where flexibility in the workplace is demanded, precarious work has been prevalent in traditional sectors such as the garment and public sector for quite some time. 

Take for example the nurses in Thai public hospitals, where the majority are women. Even though employees in the public sector are usually hired on a permanent basis, the Nurse Union of Thailand found that about 20 per cent of the nurses in public hospitals have been hired on as temporary workers or “daily workers” in which they are paid below minimum wage without any social protection or employment benefits for years. This is a case in point where public sector jobs are diminishing following pressures from neoliberal policy prescription. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, women are both overrepresented in insecure forms of employment and disproportionately affected by the development of these labour market trends.  

Similar to the ready-made garments industries in Bangladesh where 90% of workers are women, women labour activists found that about 30% of the workers in their researched workplaces are being employed on contractual basis. Essentially, contractual workers undertake the exact same work tasks as permanent workers but are denied benefits such as leave, child care and access to health care even though labour law stipulates that they should receive equal benefits. Through organising and educating their fellow workers led by AWAJ Foundation in Bangladesh, at least 600 contractual workers have united and successfully demanded the labour rights they are due as stipulated in the law.    

Women’s Demands for World Day for Decent Work 

Despite the challenges that women workers face in their workplace, there is hope that workers’ collective power will be revived and strengthened. In recent years, labour unions have gone on strike and organised collective actions that have resulted in improved working conditions for workers. The recent ILO convention on Violence and Harassment) which was adopted during the 2019 International Labour Conference aims to, for the first time, address gender-based harassment and violence in the workplace. This is the crucial time when labour unions and civil society organisations demand their governments to ratify and implement laws to address sexual harassment in the world of work. 

Advocacy and campaigns aside, women workers in Asia Pacific are also joining the Women’s Global Strike action on 8 March 2020 called by women groups and grassroots movements around the world. The globally coordinated strike is aiming to make visible the realities and demands of women on the progressive fronts. As the ultimate duty bearer, we demand that our governments uphold our human rights guarantee key fundamental rights which would bring transformative shifts for the lives of women. The key demands are Decent Work and living wage, access to land and resources, food sovereignty, and elimination of gender-based violence.     

We encourage you to join us on 8 March 2020 for a Women’s Global Strike, wherever you are, and in whatever form of strike you can take to make women’s collective voices a norm.