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The Formula Boils Over

Hong Kong

new internationalist
issue 263 - January 1995

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The formula boils over
Not everything you may have heard about the tiger economies is true.
Hugh Williamson files an alternative TV report on what it's
really like to work and live in the Asian fast lane.

In the West standard images of industrial workers in Asia’s miracle economies abound. TV news reports show young women sitting at work benches, their nimble fingers making light work of intricate tasks; new cars rolling off production lines and onto huge transporter ships bound for Western ports. Or, alternatively, depressing reports of factory closures back home: ‘2,000 jobs lost at local company! Business moves to South-East Asia, where costs are lower and labour relations easier.’

TV documentaries or news magazines fill in the ‘background’. Asians work long hours for little pay, but are happy with their lot. They may live in more cramped conditions, but they earn more than they would working in the fields. Confucianism makes them more accepting, less confrontational than Westerners. Co-operative Asian-style management philosophy sorts out problems.

A fascinating, complex range of ordinary people’s experiences meanwhile goes unreported. The great diversity of the region gets lost. The shift from rural to industrial work, getting and keeping a job and dealing with anti-social working conditions are all severe challenges. In Hong Kong and Korea, for instance, workers share similar problems with their equivalents in Western countries. Old, labour-intensive industries are closing. Older, unskilled workers are left out in the cold. To complete the circle, local multinational companies scour the region in search of the cheapest labour .

Yet growing worker militancy has become a trend uniting these diverse economies. Wherever you look certain demands are at the top of workers’ agendas: reasonable pay and the time to enjoy it; safe, humane working conditions; and independent, effective workers’ organizations.

Calls for more say in how work is organized, for a voice in how their miracle economies are run, resonate around the region. New forms of protest, of organizing and of building international solidarity are emerging.

So what would an ‘alternative’ TV current-affairs report from Asia reveal?

Based on real people, real interviews, real events of the last few years, it might look something like this. Sit back and tune in...

Good evening. In tonight’s programme we go to Thailand, China and Hong Kong. But first, to Indonesia, where a wave of strikes has recently hit the town of Medan in Sumatra, 1,200 kilometres north-west of Jakarta.

‘We get two weeks’ pay on Saturdays, but it’s gone by Monday,’ says Sudin, a slight woman in her early twenties.

Like her 3,500 colleagues in a plywood factory, she’s paid only $46 a month. For this she must work shifts, six days a week, often spending eight hours in the wood-drying section where, in her words, it gets ‘very hot’. Any air conditioning? Of course not, replies Sudin.

Sudin and her colleagues, most of them women, joined local strikes last April, because they heard Indonesia’s Minister of Manpower was visiting Medan. ‘Workers from other factories were marching into town, so we decided to join them. We wanted to get better working conditions too,’ Sudin says.

The demonstrations led to two days of riots apparently aimed at the ethnic Chinese business community, which left one business person dead. The riots may have been provoked by military agents provocateurs, it has subsequently emerged.

Sudin is with the other informal strike leaders, meeting in a local legal-aid centre. They seem edgy and excited – the experience of striking is completely new. Marsit, a man in his mid-twenties, insists the workers are neither militant nor violent. ‘We are not demonstrating. That’s too strong a word. Rather, we are just showing what we want.’ That is a minimum wage of $1.40 a day, plus better allowances for food, transport and housing.

Pematang Siantar, a town near Medan, also saw spontaneous actions. ‘The march looked like a sea of green, a thousand uniformed young women walking down the high street from their cigarette factory,’ says Kathleen Kilkelly, a local church worker. ‘The young men used megaphones, while the women sometimes stopped to sing and clap. Passers-by climbed on cars and market stalls to have a look – strikes are not so common here.’

‘Before these demonstrations of 20-30,000 people, no-one here believed such things could happen,’ adds Jafar Siddiq, a lawyer working in the legal-aid centre. The death in mysterious circumstances of a striking worker was the spark, but the root causes go deeper, Jafar says.

Poverty wages, non-enforcement of legal rights, appalling working conditions and intimidation of worker activists are all common. The strike wave that started in the early 1990s in Jakarta and other parts of Java, has now grown in magnitude and continues to cause headaches for Indonesia’s military authorities, who are trying to package the country as Asia’s new strife-free investment location.

In Medan grassroots worker-education courses often lie behind these otherwise spontaneous actions. Taslim, a stocky man in his twenties who works for a labour-education group, says:
‘We have been organizing courses to teach workers their basic legal and political rights. In the year before these strikes we ran courses in 60 companies, often in secret in workers’ hostels.’

This is important but dangerous work. The only legal trade union is controlled by the military. An independent union, the Indonesian Prosperous Labour Union (SBSI) is banned but struggling to survive; its leader Muchtar Pakpahan has been imprisoned for involvement in the Medan strikes.

Meanwhile, the plywood workers are confident of victory. Two days after our initial meeting Marsit says ‘Six other companies have accepted the workers’ demands, so we hope ours will too’.

Now to Thailand and China, where two groups of employees of the same multi-national have been standing up for their rights, in contrasting ways. In Thailand they are remembering colleagues killed in Asia’s worst factory fire, while in China campaigns for better working conditions are helping break the mould in this ‘workers’ paradise’.

Mean streets of Hong Kong. South Asian workers are a long way from home but Hong Kong dollars they earn doing the dirty work go a long way back in Karachi and Calcutta.

Bart Simpson has a lot to answer for. Dolls in the image of this popular cartoon character are among the toys made by Kader Industrial, a Hong Kong-based TNC. Kader started operations in Hong Kong in the 1950s, later investing elsewhere in Asia, seeking out cheaper labour.

One destination was Thailand, where, for the last two years its name has meant just one thing: fire. On 10 May 1993 Kader’s partly-owned Thai subsidiary, 20 kilometres from Bangkok, burnt down, killing 189 workers and injuring 500 others. Most victims were young women.

It is 8 May 1994 and Kader survivors, Thai trade unionists and their international supporters are marking the fire’s anniversary with a traditional Buddhist ceremony. Offerings are made in a local temple and monks are invited to perform a ritual for the fire victims.

It is a solemn event, yet one that offers a time for reflection and for looking forward. Since the fire, campaigns for compensation have been intense. In addition to widespread protests in Thailand, survivors have received support from many Asian trade unions and citizens groups and have travelled to Hong Kong to confront Kader directly. It has denied responsibility, saying the Thai factory was managed separately.

Eventually compensation of around $8,000 is paid to each of the families of those killed, but Thai workers are not content. Their government has done little that it promised to tighten industrial safety; ‘We want Thailand to learn from this tragic event’, is the message at the end of the anniversary ceremony.

Yet there are more immediate concerns. Kader opened a new factory in March 1994 in Thailand’s remote north-east province. Labour groups found that, as previously, Kader failed to meet safety and employment regulations. Will change have to await another tragedy? they ask.

In China, where Kader set up a toy factory in the mid-1980s, the news is more positive. The factory is in Shekou, Guangdong province, the heart of southern China’s booming export economy, where double-digit growth rates continue to attract migrant workers from inland provinces.

They arrive to a harsh reality. When they can find jobs, working conditions are usually appalling. Kader used to be typical. An official survey in 1993 identified it as one of the province’s harshest employers; daily wages were between 52 and 64 US cents, less than half the minimum wage.

In May 1993 Kader’s Chinese workers said ‘enough is enough’. At first they refused to work overtime, extending this to an all-out strike a couple of weeks later. The strike brought results. Wages now stand at between $1.70 and $2.30 a day and canteen and living quarters – another major area of complaint – have been improved.

The Kader workers’ action is not an isolated case. Despite China’s ban on free trade unions, labour exploitation and job insecurity have spawned an upsurge in such wild-cat strikes. The number of clandestine workers’ groups is also increasing. In line with Communist ideology, workers are again at the forefront of change in China – yet in a manner the country’s ageing leadership finds increasingly disturbing.

Finally, we go to Hong Kong, a territory in political and industrial transition.
How does the head of one of East Asia’s leading independent unions see his future role?

Lee Cheuk Yan, chief executive of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU), is a busy man. We meet in his cramped backstreet office, tucked away among industrial workshops. A union training session is under way in the neighbouring room and phone calls and other interruptions are frequent.

‘If we can’t assert our union rights we can’t expect to assert our political rights,’ says Lee, a well-built man in his mid-thirties. Building a strong union base before Hong Kong returns to Chinese rule in 1997 is one of Lee’s top priorities. ‘We have to be able to stand up to China.’

Established only in 1990, the CTU already has 115,000 members. Its main rival, a much older union which supports China’s communist regime, has around 200,000.

Lee and his union have been vocal supporters of campaigns for more democracy in both Hong Kong and China. The very public clashes between London and Beijing over Hong Kong’s election system only scratch the political surface, Lee insists.

Grassroots union organizing, for instance, is crucial. Only one in five of Hong Kong’s workers is in a union. Moreover, the territory has lost almost 50 per cent of its manufacturing jobs in the last 10 years – mostly to China – leaving many middle-aged, unskilled workers (especially women) with a bleak future. The service sector is booming but retraining schemes, which Lee supports, are limited and often do not lead to jobs.

‘We make many proposals – on investment programmes, health and safety, working practices, many things – yet employers and the Government are very hostile to collectivism. But we will not, cannot give up our campaigns,’ Lee adds as he is called away to another meeting.

In their struggles for better lives, better futures, are Lee Cheuk Yan in Hong Kong, Sudin and Marsit in Indonesia and the Kader workers in Thailand and China, trying to tell you something? Despite the familiar images, the miracle is boiling over and taking ordinary people with it.

Hugh Williamson, a journalist based in Germany, is author of Coping with the Miracle: Japan’s Unions Explore New International Relations (Pluto Press, London, 1994).

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