Evolution of Labour Legislation in Asia
Labour legislation — the set of laws in a country laying down the rights of workers, or prescribing the space for improving their situation — are of great importance for workers.
Labour legislation ideally should be a firm foundation of laws protecting the workers’ rights and underpinning the workers’ desire for justice, and a fair share in the fruits of his or her labour. However in a number of countries in Asia, the experience of the workers is that labour laws, far from underpinning their rights, actually limit their rights and restrict the space in which they may organise and act to attain their basic rights as workers and as human beings. It is still a long way until basic rights of workers are accepted without question.
Thus the histories of labour movements in Asian countries have been stories of constant struggle, of organising and of sacrifice to defend and increase this space in which workers may assert their rights. This must take place before their governments will actually defend these rights.
How did labour laws evolve in Asia and how are they related to the structures of power in the societies? Some insight into these questions can be important for the labour movements and for those who work with them, in guiding action and clarifying strategies for improving the workers’ rights. This publication “Evolution of Labour Legislation in Asia”, attempts to throw light on some of these questions, by a comparative study involving nine Asian countries, with the aim of strengthening the action of workers groups and labour movements.
The Christian Conference of Asia — Urban Rural Mission (CCA-URM) which supports programs for workers’ organising and workers rights throughout Asia, has become aware of the need to understand the history and background of labour laws in order to understand how they can be changed. Through its programs on Economic Justice and on Urban-Industrial issues, CCA-URM has maintained efforts to strengthen social action groups and labour movements in Asia for more than 20 years.
At a program-workshop four years ago on “Asian Peoples’ Struggle for Economic Freedom”, there was a recommendation made to study the labour legislations of different Asian countries. The rationale given was as follows:
“Labour Legislation is a product of the structure of power in each of the Asian countries. The changes that happen vis a vis labour laws, are closely related to the shifts in the power relationship between the ruling classes and the workers. A study that passes on these aspects and a comparison of situations that enhances the, struggles, should be aimed at.”
DAGA (Documentation for Action Groups in Asia) which supports URM programs and action groups in documentation, research and training, was asked to undertake a study with such an objective in mind. John Kurien, then director of DAGA, served as the Study Coordinator, beginning the process in 1983, and arranging for circulation of initial documentations on the subject, identifying the participants from eight countries who would contribute to the study and organising the first meetings.
The study method was designed as a common effort to stimulate exchange of insights and discovery of common themes among the different countries. The contributors met together first in two sub regional meetings held in Hong Kong and Colombo: South-east Asia (Thailand, Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan), and South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh). At these meetings study outlines were developed after each participant had done background research in his or her own country. At this stage there appeared certain commonalities in the historical contexts and in the experiences of the workers. The next meeting of the full group of authors was held in Thailand, where the exchange and definition of the study went further. Between the meetings, the participants interacted with workers groups, activists and researchers in their own countries.
What follows is the result of this group process, a product of practical researches and lively exchange of ideas among the contributors and workers groups and movements. The task has not been an easy one, the subject being complicated by diversities of history and culture and a group effort having certain practical difficulties. After having contributed much to this idea and the study-process, John Kurien had to leave DAGA to return to his work in his home country.
The process of the contributors preparing their studies continued, with meetings of smaller groups. Later a major delay arose when the original contributor for the section on India had to withdraw for personal reasons. The other members strongly felt that the study would be incomplete without the Indian contribution. However DAGA’s efforts to find a new contributor for India to fit into the already shaped study-outlines were not met with success until Ajit Roy and Biren Roy made their contribution, happily fitting well into the common framework. Later a group of labour movement workers in Korea, which had not earlier been involved, felt that a contribution on the Korean situation should be included, with which we agreed. While not involved in the earlier process, we feel their contribution, focusing on the present labour-law situation in Korea, should be included. We regret the delay that has occurred, as a result of these changes, but we feel that each of the contributions has maintained its importance even though the study process spanned a few years. Due to this, the contributions may not all be up to date with very recent developments in each country, including those in labour legislation. Readers who would like access to further information could contact the authors through DAGA.
It was a challenge to pioneer this area of research, and we hope that this common effort will expose factors in the exploitation of workers by the transnational economic powers and their local counterparts; more than that we hope it will throw light on the justice of the aspirations of workers and undergird the continuing struggles for justice of labour movements in each country in Asia.