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Scrambling for a foothold

April 1980

Trade unions are a relatively new force in the Third World. In most poor countries, they’ve had to scramble even to get a foothold. Joe Holland looks at one union battle in the Philippines and argues that trade unions can be an important force for equity.

On a recent visit to the Philippines, I examined the condition of workers and their trade union rights at the Bataan Export Processing Zone, a Free Trade Zone in the small seaport town of Mariveles. Five hundred workers at a Ford Motors plant had gone on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. Their wages were slightly higher than the average $1.50 a day, but still not enough for subsistence. Under pressure from the local employers’ association, Ford fired all the workers. Protest was met by the military who detained the demonstrators without food or drink. With the strike broken, Ford re-hired 200 but labelled the remainder ‘troublemakers’. These 300 in turn were banned from other employment.

Many of the banned workforce stopped sending their children to school - they had no money for transport. Others nearly stopped feeding them - they had no money for food. Many children began showing tell-tale signs of malnutrition. Some mothers pleaded with me to take their children back to the U.S. so they would survive.

One result of the Free Trade Zone was evident in the contrast between how the factories were cared for and how the workers were treated. The machines were tended by a corps of maintenance men; the plant was housed in immaculate, air-conditioned new buildings, surrounded by careful landscaping, and protected by high steel fences and armed guards. The workers lived nearby - housed in what looked like chicken coops, with perhaps six to eight per room, dirt floors, no running water or sanitary facilities, and open sewage running through the walk-way between the buildings. The plant was an investment to care for; the workers were expendable. Under such conditions workers have no alternative but to unionize.

Unions unknown

But like the Ford workers in Mariveles, Third World unions face formidable obstacles. First, many urban workers are recent arrivals from the countryside, where trade unions are unknown. They are grateful simply to have a job in the midst of widespread unemployment. Second, they face employers whose profit margins in a competitive world depend on cheap (and that means unorganised) labour. A strong union could mean employers close down and move elsewhere. Many Third World leaders like President Marcos in the Philippines and General Videla in Argentina choose to repress the workers’ movements to guarantee political stability and low wages required by foreign investors.

Although Third World societies are thought of primarily as rural the main object - rightly or wrongly - of Third World development has been industrialization. Industrial workers in Hong Kong make up 51 per cent of the labour force, in Singapore 33 per cent, in South Korea 26 per cent and in Taiwan 36 per cent. And they are all potential trade union members. Public sector workers like teachers, health workers and some agricultural workers are also forming trade unions.

Along with religious organisations, political parties, and peasant cooperatives, trade unions are one of the major ways ordinary people can make, their voices heard in society. If people are to participate in their own development, they need strong trade unions to defend their interests. Indeed, part of the reason for high living standards of ordinary people in the West is due to battles fought by trade unions in the past on their behalf.

Although they have problems of their own, trade unions in the rich world could do more to help their fellow workers in the underdeveloped nations. One large labour body, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), has been criticized as more an arm of US foreign policy than an organisation fighting for international trade union rights.

But there are encouraging signs. The ICFTU has recently produced a Development Charter, for example. And the International Trade Secretariats which co-ordinate international union activities within specific areas like chemicals, food production and steel are also taking more interest in the Third World. The International Metalworkers Federation in particular has been pursuing ways of countering the burgeoning power of the multinationals.

Joe Holland is with the Catholic Centre of Concern, Washington D. C.

This feature was published in the April 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 086

New Internationalist Magazine issue 086
Issue 086

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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– Emma Thompson –

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