The Battle for Decent Work: Labor Migration and Labor Rights in Asia
All across the world, from Europe and Asia, to Africa and Latin America, the last three decades have witnessed the gradual and persistent retrenchment of state institutions, most especially in the realm of economics. Such seismic renegotiation in the relationship between the state and markets has been found upon a set of simplistic assumptions, namely the efficiency of markets as collective mechanisms of value-production and the rationality of individual market participants.
Concerned with hyper-inflation and chronic budget deficit, proponents of market reform have called for the overhaul of national and international economic order, shifting the balance of power in favor of private business interests at the expense of public welfare and social cohesion. With the dismantling of regulatory structures -- designed to rein in the excesses of markets, and strike a balance between economic productivity and constitutional principles undermining the political order -- market liberalization has gone hand in hand with successive financial crises, which have, in turn, undermined the social fabric of many countries around the world.
From East Asia to Latin America and Eurasia, developing economies have been repeatedly battered by economic shocks, largely brought about by the dismemberment of regulatory institutions and the over-exposure of local economies to the vagaries of international trade and investment flows. The 2008 Great Recession proved that even the center-economies were not immune to the irrational drive of markets, which are mainly concerned with profit-maximization and capital-accumulation. Committed to driving the state to the peripheries, the markets have defanged its regulatory capacity and hollowed its welfare responsibilities. As a result, a growing number of people, especially the youth, have suffered from under-investment in education and healthcare; the incessant privatization of public goods and modes of production has led to a sustained assault on the most fundamental rights of ordinary citizens.
The advent of “labor flexibilization” -- the systematic erosion of labor rights for purely profit-driven and productivity based considerations -- has led to the emasculation of labor unions, the deterioration of working conditions, and increased employment uncertainty, which have, in turn, further increased the grip of capital over labor markets. Consequently, recent years have seen a dramatic explosion in inequality and unemployment/underemployment rates across the world, both in post-recession economies of the West as well as in the rapidly-developing regions of Asia and Africa. Many economies are suffering from either anemic growth or lack of inclusive growth. Against the backdrop of counter-productive neo-liberal economic reforms, the issue of work -- anchored by safe and enabling working conditions, protection of labor rights, vibrant labor unions, and the availability of meaningful employment opportunities for the greater majority of the population -- is of paramount importance.
As social democrats, who believe in the inseparability of inclusive development, basic social rights, and democratic governance, the issue of decent work represents a key priority, which will be central to addressing rising inequality, endemic poverty, and concentrated growth across regions, from Middle East and Africa to Latin America, Europe and Asia.
The advent of economic globalization, which has deepened inequality within and among countries, has also led to sustained labor migration on a transcontinental scale, often contributing to employment insecurity within host economies, especially among lower-skilled laborers, and exacerbating “brain drain” in the developing economies.
“The neoliberal paradigm of the 20th century dehumanized migrant workers by reducing them into temporary factors of production, while degrading individual countries into labour exporting/importing countries,” explains Ellen Sana, a leading expert on labor migration issues from the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), in the Quarterly. “Under the neo-liberal paradigm, migrants are perceived as a source of labour, foreign currency earning and remittances rather than human beings.”
Today, countries like the Philippines, Nepal, Tajikistan, India, and Mexico have emerged as major labor-exporting countries, with hundreds of millions of people around the world depending on remittances of millions of migrant workers based in the developed world and oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdoms.
“Nepal, with 26.4 million population, has sent more than 10 percent of its people to work far away, who are of productive age group,” explains Deepak Gajurel in the Quarterly, a Nepalese political scientist at Tribhuvan University. “Most [Nepal’s] foreign currency [boost] comes from [remittances from] the unskilled or semi-skilled workers, majority of whom shed their sweat in the hot climate of the Gulf countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.” Multi-billion-dollar remittances have come to serve as the backbone of the national economy of many developing countries, with governments in countries such as the Philippines actively encouraging labor migration as a means to (a) ameliorate domestic employment gaps and (b) prop up the domestic economy. The growing dependence on labor export has deprived many developing countries of much-needed labor -- across the skills spectrum -- and structurally transformed their national economies, where remittances serve as the engine of domestic consumption and services-oriented production.
More worryingly, large-scale labor migration has met socio-political backlash in some host countries, especially in periods of economic downturn and growing unemployment, while many migrant workers continue to be exposed to abuse at the hands of their employers with minimum-to-none legal protection in the host countries. The growing “feminization” of migrant labor -- many working in dangerous conditions as domestic workers or garment industry outlets -- has deepened vulnerability to abuse, further raising the necessity for urgent policy interventions to protect migrant labor. “Labor migration is a gendered phenomenon -- with an increasing number of women migrating independently from men,” Sana explains in her article for the Quarterly. In 2013, female migrant workers accounted for 41.6% of total Asian migrants. There has also been a huge social cost for developing countries, as a growing number of mothers (and sisters) -- the backbone of family life -- leave behind their families in search of employment opportunities abroad.
Decent work is central to human dignity and the cornerstone of any democratic society; it is a primordial advocacy that should stand at the forefront of much-needed economic reforms to reverse the tragic decline of labor rights, public welfare, and social cohesion in recent decades. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has succinctly captured the true essence of decent employment by defining work as “a source of personal dignity, family stability, peace in the community, democracies that deliver for people and economic growth that expands opportunities for productive jobs and enterprise development.” The ILO’s Decent Work Agenda rests on four pillars: namely, job creation, guaranteeing of employment rights, expansion of social protection, and promotion of social dialogue. The 2014 Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) as well as the Association of southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) ongoing negotiations on establishing a Common Market in 2015 have increasingly focused on the interrelationship between economic buoyancy, socio-political cohesion, and employment generation, highlighting the growing significance of decent labor as a key priority of countries across the world as well as the relevant international organizations and fora. The tasks of the meeting, therefore, are to analyze issues surrounding decent work and migration; share experiences and reflections among progressives and; explore concrete steps on how political actors like political parties, policy makers and trade unions can realize the decent work agenda as a cornerstone of national economies and the global economic order.
Towards a New Deal 2.0
Despite a decade of sustained economic expansion, poverty and unemployment continue to afflict many Asian economies. In the age of reduced social welfare, aggressive economic liberalization, and relentless trade opening, the lack of inclusive growth has become a common concern among many rapidly-developing economies around the world. In countries such as the Philippines, largely touted as the next tiger economy of Asia, about half-a-decade of above-average GDP growth rates have hardly changed double-digit poverty and underemployment figures. Meanwhile, few family-dominated conglomerates continue to swallow a disproportionate chunk of the newly-created growth.
No wonder, rising inequality is a huge concern across Asia and emerging markets around the world. In this sense, developing regions in Asia continue to struggle with structural and cyclical unemployment, especially among the youth, as well as rising inequality, as decades of neo-liberal reforms allowed major corporations to extract maximum profit at the expense of labor.
“Remnants of the once dominant economic policy of import substitution and the production economy syndrome that reined the South Asia region till the late 1980s still lingers strong in a new form of a blind competition to produce cheaper than the neighbor,” argues S.H.A.Mohamed the Quarterly. “This has led to an endless competition of cutting costs to keep prices low. There isn’t much one could squeeze on material input costs of the process of production to truncate prices. This makes the benefits of workers and the strategic aims of the decent work focus an easy prey to the cost cutting competition.”
Given the centrality of meaningful employment to human dignity and egalitarianism to social cohesion, the existing economic paradigm presents significant challenges to both established democracies in Europe as well as budding democracies in Asia and other developing regions. But the issue of labor rights has both domestic and trans-border dimensions: protecting the rights of migrant labor as well as ensuring decent jobs for those that stay behind as well as returning migrant laborers.
“The impact of outward migration on communities of origin is underdeveloped and warrants interrogation,” Greg Randolph of the JustJobs Network explains in the Quarterly. “Policymakers, researchers and advocates must not only ask whether migrants are enjoying equal rights in destination countries, but also whether migration is driving positive social and economic transformation in their communities of origin.” Given the huge contribution of migrant labor to domestic economy of many developing countries like Indonesia, Randolph argues, it is important for governments to focus on mechanisms that allow for an optimal investment of remittances to generate better business and employment opportunities back in labor-sending communities. The government, Randolph explains, should “facilitate the types of investment of remittance capital that could support a dynamic, local – and job-creating – economy.”
On the domestic front, in order “to keep and to maintain union power and influence in industrial relations, unions need to stay alert both on state and corporate policies as well as on the overall organizational landscape,” explains Indrasari Tjandraningsih, researcher, at AKATIGA, Center for Social Analysis, Bandung-Indonesia. “Developing good and effective strategies is a necessity, since capitalists continue to develop a strategy to conquer the labor movement. In the Indonesian context, trade unions also need the support of the wider community so they can reach out to more workers and have a formal, legal recognition as the representatives of the working classes.”
Developing good and effective strategies is a necessity, since capitalists continue to develop a strategy to conquer the labor movement.
Any effort on this front must cut across borders, and involve a genuine multilateral dimension. “The international nature of migration makes international cooperation and dialogue amongst countries inherently imperative to the protection of migrants,” Sana explains. “[cross-border labor migration] has grown exponentially over the past decades and will continue to do so throughout the 21st century. The protection of migrants should be the primary and central concern of migration policies. Equitable economic growth is not viable when migration policies continue to allow abuse and exploitation.”
Even in more developed Asian countries such as South Korea, which has been the site of one of the most impressive economic miracles in modern history, the conditions of the working class has become increasingly precarious. ‘[South Koreans] go through the process of “hierarchization” of labor force in their twenties: the competition for entering high-ranked university and the endeavor for enhancing one’s resume (called “spec(ifications))”, in Korean-English) is the key,’ explains Gibin Hong of the Global Political Economy Institute in the Quarterly. “When they get finally employed according to the position allocated in the hierarchy, they find working hour very long and salary/wage insufficient in relation to the length and intensity of work. Finally, there is no well-developed system of comprehensive social protection, so they are largely on their own when they are fired or retire from work.” Neo-liberal capitalism has effectively ended “life-time employment” in developmental Asian states such as Japan and South Korea, dramatically re-configuring the nature of employment for the new generation. As a result, most workers, eager to enhance their employment security and expand their employment horizons, end up in a culture whereby, as Gibin Hong explains, “it becomes almost social “norm” for the people in the age of 30s and 40s to boast of how much they overwork themselves, and they simply don’t have time and energy to maintain and develop their capacities in the long run.” South Korea’s think welfare system provides minimal protection for the increasingly precarious working population, necessitating the establishment of grass-roots-level support systems as well as a huge push for welfare provision on the national level. The result is a greater sense of insecurity, atomistic behavior, and endless competitive struggle in a society, which, in recent decades manage to so successfully and rapidly build one of Asia’s biggest middle class populations -- the very agent of the democratic struggles that ended military dictatorship in the Northeast Asian country. In emerging and developing economies of Asia, a tiny middle class is squeezed between a legion of underemployed masses and a tiny, but highly influential plutocracy at the peak of the social pyramid.
Historically, the middle classes have served as an anchor of democratic politics, advocating basic civil liberties and political rights as well as equitable distribution of wealth -- elements that are pivotal to any functioning liberal democracy. But the retrenchment of the welfare/developmental state in recent decades has led to the emergence of highly unequal, polarized societies, which has, in turn, precipitated a marked deterioration in the quality of democratic discourse and contestation across the world. In this sense, both Europe and Asia share serious challenges to sustaining their democratic gains and traditions.
More than ever, against the backdrop of widening inequality and growing imbalances in the labor markets, it is important for nation-states to re-focus on the issue of labor rights and decent work, as part of a larger project to broaden and empower the working population – especially the middle and working classes -- and expand opportunities for democratic politics. The vibrancy and resilience of democracies is ultimately anchored by the status, working conditions, and living standards of its labor force. And an empowered labor force is crucial to sustained economic development.
This edition of the Quarterly brings together views from leading experts and advocates from across the region and beyond, picking up on the discussions in the SOCDEM Asia & GPF-PES-S&D Politicians Meeting on the topic of “Developing Progressive Agenda and Forging Partnerships toward the ASEM Summit”, and Progressive Alliance and SOCDEM Asia Meeting on the topic of “Decent Work and Migration”, on 29-30 September 2014 in Makati, Holiday Inn and Suites Makati, Philippines.
*Richard Javad Heydarian is the editor-in-chief of Socdem Asia Quarterly. He is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and has written for or interviewed by leading publications such as Foreign Affairs, BBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Aljazeera English, among others.