Evolution of Labour Legislation in Asia
The peoples of Asia share a common colonial past and neo-colonial present. They are also beneficiaries of a common legacy of struggle.
Where there is oppression, there is resistance. This is the unifying theme that runs through the history of Asian peoples from colonial times up to the present.
The evolution of labour legislation must therefore be studied in the context of this colonial and neo-colonial setting and in the light of the workers’ and peoples’ movements.
With very few exceptions, all of the Asian countries had been under the direct colonial rule of Western powers. These were years in which the working class was composed of people who were thinly spread over the ventures of commercial agriculture and extractive industry in which there was metropolitan investment. In most of these colonies a working class had to be created from the marginal sections of a peasant mass within which proletarianization had as yet to take place. This thin layer of the working class had a potency for mobilization in the movements in the colonies for increasingly greater degrees of political freedom.
The laws passed during this period, including labour laws, inevitably bore the imprint of colonial administrators whose principal task was to preserve and fortify the prevailing colonial order. A good illustration would be the cedulas (decrees) promulgated by the Spanish Crown to legalise forced labour in the Philippines. In Sri Lanka, the British promulgated labour laws that sought to “regulate” or prevent labour disputes in plantations so that the smooth flow of the colonial trade between Sri Lanka and Great Britain would remain undisturbed. In Indonesia, the Dutch considered strikes as penal offenses that “tended to disturb public order”.
It was also during this period when the native bourgeoisie of Asia aligned themselves with the imperialists to prohibit strikes and the forming of unions. This anti-labour policy ensured the steady supply of cheap local labour to depress the price of raw materials that were being siphoned out to the metropolitan countries. Even in Japan, where capitalist production proceeded at a faster pace, the state saw to it that the wages of workers were pegged at a very low level and strikes were banned to make Japanese products competitive abroad.
Upon the granting of formal political independence to the different countries of Asia, the Western powers secured the preservation of the colonies’ fundamental socio-economic structures. The positions of the affluent classes were kept intact. The predominantly agrarian economies of Asia are still tied to the industrial, capitalist mode of production of the mother countries.
Native elites took over from their colonial masters. The local bourgeoisie and feudalists took the place of the British in Pakistan and Malaysia and the Dutch in Indonesia. The Sandikna-capitalists assumed power in Thailand. The ilustrados replaced the Americans in the administration of government in the Philippines. In Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the native capitalists held the reins of state power. The Indian bourgeoisie were as anti-workers as the British that they replaced.
The class interests of these native elites are inseparably linked and identified with the intentions of the metropolitan powers. Once elite representatives are placed in positions of power, their policies, especially in regard to labour, must necessarily be according to the wishes of their foreign patrons.
The workers in the region have experienced brutal repression by the police in league with foreign and local capitalists. In many instances, these police forces are trained, armed and ordered by foreign military advisers. The army, courts, and prisons are always arrayed against the militant workers whenever the interests of the imperialists are threatened. All the toilers of Asia who have organised themselves into genuine labour organisations have experienced state violence. Even in Japan, the General Headquarters of General Douglas McArthur actively assisted in the arrests, detention and harassment of “leftist” labour leaders.
In all instances, repression has been legalised by labour laws. Force has always been complemented by deception. Thus, we find the imperialist-backed regimes promoting economism and various forms of anti-labour ideology in the consciousness of the working class. The United States in the Philippines, through the American-funded Asian Labour Education Center, promoted the principles of “economism”, “bread-and-butter” unionism and such concepts as “harmony between labour and management”. In Japan, the US also encouraged the imposition of feudal norms and values on labour-capital relations and preached the “reconciliation of the interests of workers and capitalists”. Through some reformist measures, the Sri Lankan state tries to keep the labour movement away from politics.
The state, by its various instrumentalities, sows intrigues and foments division within the ranks of workers to weaken the labour movement. In Thailand it fuelled the dispute between Chinese and Thai workers. In Sri Lanka, the state drummed up anti-Indian sentiments and tried to drive a wedge between plantation workers and urban labourers. The Pakistani government assisted in the formation of Confederation of Free Trade Unions to split the ranks of workers. In Japan, the Japan Confederation of Labour (DOMEI) split from the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (SOHYO) and bannered anti-communism and pro-Americanism. The government of Indonesia encouraged the split and conflicts between the pro-communist and anti-communist, Islamic unions. In Hong Kong, it benefits the capitalists to have pro-Taiwan and pro-China labour federations.
But the working class refused to be duped or intimidated. They have proved, time and again, their ability to stand up against all odds; to regroup, if they are dispersed; to generate new leaders, if their leaders are arrested, maimed or killed; to work underground, if they are illegalised; and to engage in various forms of concerted activities, if strikes and unions are banned. Most importantly, the workers have learned to combine economic struggles with political struggles; to link the trade union movement with the broader movement for national liberation and democracy; and to transform the workers’ movement into a general peoples’ movement.
Among the workers of Asia, there is a growing realisation that they live in societies which are semi-colonial and semi-feudal. That though they were granted political independence, such independence is only in name because they are still dependent economically on the big capitalist countries.
Therefore, the anti-capitalist struggle of the workers in these countries are closely interwoven with the anti-colonial and anti-feudal struggle of peasants, petty-bourgeoisie and other oppressed sectors of society. The national struggle becomes an extension of the workers’ class struggle. National liberation becomes a prerequisite to class emancipation.
The workers’ movement in the different Asian countries have already reached, in varying degrees, this stage of political development. The workers have begun to assume a leading role in these peoples’ movements.
The ruling classes, however, would not take these developments sitting down. They are sensitive to these developments. And they are doing everything, even to the extent of giving concessions to the workers, to avert their total collapse. The following are some of the perceptible trends:
First. In all Asian countries, the governments have recognised the right to self-organisation and to strike as legal rights of workers. This recognition, which is long overdue, has a two-fold purpose: one — to appease the workers’ movement and, two — to deflect world public opinion which is sensitive to human rights violations.
But let us remember that this is only a recognition of workers’ rights in legal contemplation. A regime may, in law or theory, recognise the workers’ right to strike; but it may put certain qualifications on its exercise as to render such right ineffectual or illusory in practice.
Thus we find that in almost all countries of Asia, workers can strike except in industries which are considered “necessary industries”, “vital industries”, “essential services” or in those firms within the free or export processing zones.
These limitations would have been reasonable enough if only such terms as “vital”, “necessary” or “essential” are well-defined. But the trouble lies in the fact that in the law itself, these words do not have a settled, technical meaning. Because of ambiguity of the law, discretion is left to the administrative officers to categorize any or all industries as “vital” or “necessary”. In such a case, in no industry can the workers strike.
Labour’s right to strike can be further nullified by the cumbersome procedure provided by law before the workers can declare a strike. Common to all recent legislations is the provision on the “cooling-off” period. Some countries require 30 days, others 40 days, as the period to be observed by the workers before they could legitimately go on strike. This is supposed to be the period for the amicable settlement of industrial disputes. In practice, however, this is the period when the management or the state can bribe or intimidate the labour sector.
Second. Asia’s labour movement confronts the threat of increasing militarization of society. There is a trend toward authoritarianism in Asia. The governments have been resorting to arrests, maiming or even killing of militant labour leaders. An increasing number not only of workers but also of peasants and students have been victims of these gross violations of human rights.
This recent phenomenon could be explained by the current economic crisis gripping the underdeveloped societies of Asia. The ruling classes, because of their own financial difficulties, find themselves unable to give any more economic concessions to the workers even if they want to.
We may expect that in the foreseeable future, the capitalist-backed states would resort more and more to force rather than deception. Fascism would rear its ugly head and discard its brittle reformist shield.
In the ultimate analysis, it would be imperialism who would be benefited by these developments. Imperialism will continue to avail of cheap and docile labour together with tax holidays, low tariff and other incentives given to them by their client states. In other words, in Asia, for the imperialists, it is going to be “business as usual”. That is, if the workers of Asia will allow it.
We do not think they will.