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Trembling Tigers - aftershocks of the East Asian economic crisis
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Trade unions respond

Pressing for change - South Korea lost 4,000 jobs per day.

While currencies collapsed and financial institutions filed for bankruptcy in East Asia, the world’s press bemoaned massive stockmarket losses. The people who lost their jobs were mentioned only occasionally.

Despite the Asian Tigers’ ‘miracle economies’, most people live in abject poverty. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), over 950 million people in South East Asia struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day. Now the majority of East Asians are having to pay for the excesses and corruption of years of economic boom.

‘My heart started beating faster when my boss invited me to lunch,’ recalls Chae, an assistant director of a Korean advertising agency. ‘After lunch he told me reluctantly that I was being dismissed.’

There are millions of men and women like Chae. In Thailand a million job losses are expected during the next 12 months. The situation is similar in Indonesia, where two million job losses are probable.

According to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) an average of more than 200 companies have shut down each day since the beginning of the crisis, with a record 340 on 5 January 1998. An average 4,000 workers a day have been driven out onto the streets as unemployed.

Asian unions, with the assistance of the ICTFU and International Labor Organization, are now fighting to make indebted governments remember the welfare of working men and women. Despite the advocacy of international trade unions in South Korea, the KCTU has accepted legislation that will allow management to dismiss many workers for ‘operational’ reasons. In exchange, KCTU’s 600,000 members will receive some unemployment insurance, a national teachers’ union will be legalized and unions will have the right to participate in politics.

The financial restructuring required by IMF aid packages for East Asian governments involves cuts in public expenditure, tax increases and other ‘austerity measures’.

The International Federation of Commercial, Clinical, Professional and Technical Employees fears that this sort of ‘belt-tightening’, when wages are falling and unemployment and basic commodity prices are rising, ‘will have significant social consequences’.

‘Working people in South East Asia are angry and resentful that they are having to pay the heaviest price for the incompetence and corruption of a few very wealthy individuals and their international backers,’ says the ICFTU, which expects ‘social tensions to mount as dismissals and pay cuts multiply over the coming months’. In an attempt to harness productively the anger and frustration of East Asia’s unemployed millions, the ICFTU Asian and Pacific regional organization (APRO) held a ‘Forum on the Asian Economic Turmoil’ in Singapore. Delegates from international trade unions, the ILO and even the World Bank and IMF attended. The statement adopted at the Forum calls for the payment of due wages and severance pay; the protection of viable jobs; company-level negotiations on social plans to accompany financial restructuring; the implementation of social and public works programs; a special focus on the impact of the crisis on women workers; and the review of laws and practices that hamper the organization of workers.

The KCTU and ICFTU agree that confidence will not be restored until ‘fundamental reforms are made to ensure democratic accountability and transparency of both the international financial system and national institutions for the regulation of financial markets... Only then will the priorities of fighting unemployment and poverty have their rightful place before the protection of the interests of multinational companies and the fortunes of the narrow élite who have reaped the benefit of trade and financial liberalization.’

Sara Chamberlain

Action against sanctions
Human-rights journalist and campaigner, Felicity Arbuthnot, has fallen foul of British authorities by taking a box of medicine into Iraq without an export licence. The Department of Trade and Industry says she has broken international sanctions on Iraq and they will consider reporting her to customs officials.

Arbuthnot says a professor, whose brother is dying of cancer in Iraq, asked her if she could bring him medicine – a year’s supply of chemo therapy. The cancer patient is a doctor who spent many years in London working at the Hammersmith hospital. He had tried to get out of Iraq but the British government refused him a visa.

To stop sanctions against Iraq contact:
International Action Centre
Tel: +1 212 633 6646; Fax: +2 212 633 2889
email: [email protected]

Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq, c/o Sebastian Wills, Clare College, Cambridge CB2 1Tl, Britain.
email: [email protected]

Iraqi Action Coalition Tel: +1 919 846 8264 Fax: +1 919 846 7422 email: [email protected]

Stormy seas
Miners have staked the first claim to seabed metal deposits in the South Pacific. Australian Nautilus Minerals won title to nearly 3,200 square kilometres of the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea. The company plans to start taking preliminary hauls of 10,000 tons in the next two years.

Drillbits & Tailings Vol 3 No 2

Aping the UN

Aping the UN
Animal-rights activists have launched a campaign for the implementation of a ‘United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Great Apes’. Known as the Great Apes Project (GAP), the campaign is an attempt to persuade people that if an animal can feel pain then it deserves the right to be protected by law – just as society protects the interests of children and disabled adults. ‘Great apes have emotions, feel pain, experience suffering, and more than 96 per cent of their genes are exactly the same as humans,’ says David Pearson from GAP. Pearson reports that some European and North American bio-medical companies experiment on great apes because they are so similar to humans. GAP hope the European Parliament will outlaw this practice.

Asiya Odugleh/Gemini News Service.

A special report on the people who pay the price of Asia's currency crash
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Tiger papers
Press mauled by soaring newsprint costs

Higher prices threaten Indonesia's 100,000 newspaper sellers.

The price of newsprint in Indonesia has quadrupled, threatening the viability of many newspapers. PT Aspex Paper, which supplies 70 per cent of Indonesian newsprint, says the price change is necessary because of the drop in the value of the rupiah. This may be the final blow to news-papers already bleeding from shortfalls in advertising revenue.

‘There’s no need for banning. At these prices, the press will die on its own,’ grumbles Atal S Depari, Managing Editor of the Jakarta daily Sinar Pagi. S Leo Batubara, Secretary of the National Newspaper Association, says only a third of Indonesia’s 286 newspapers are actually making money.

Media analysts warn of major staff layoffs in the near future. Many of Indonesia’s 5,600 journalists, 11,000 other media workers and 100,000 street sellers could lose their livelihoods.

The public has never been hungrier for news, at a time when President Suharto is under fire for his handling of the economy, and formerly forbidden subjects such as the Presidential succession, are openly discussed. Suharto has no sympathy for the press, which he says worsened the crisis of confidence in the rupiah by publishing critical reports.

Despite its alleged clout, the press has been unable to persuade Aspex Paper to reduce prices. ‘How can you be so powerful, and at the same time so powerless?’ muses Bambang Harymurti, Executive Editor of the daily Media Indonesia, where 38 out of 120 editorial employees were recently laid off, along with 69 other workers. Journalists say the Government is not doing anything to bring the price down because it wants less coverage of the crisis.

Margot Cohen/Far Eastern Economic Review Vol 161 No 11

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Big Bad World POLYP cartoon POLYP cartoon POLYP cartoon POLYP cartoon [image, unknown]
Trembling Tigers - aftershocks of the East Asian economic crisis
[image, unknown]

Migrants must go
Foreign workers are thrown out of Malaysia

Packing their bags - labourers make hasty preparations to leave.

At least three million migrant workers, who have helped to build the Malaysian economic ‘miracle’, now face the threat of deportation. Work permits expiring in mid-1998 are unlikely to be renewed. Hundreds of thousands will then be forced to return home to poor families who depend on their remittances.

A year ago, when the economy was booming, the Government encouraged employers to legalize migrant labour, and 12-month work permits were issued. Manufacturing firms even sent personnel managers to Indonesia and Bangladesh to look for additional staff.

Now migrants are often sacked without pay and some employers even refuse to give back their passports. ‘There’s no law that states migrant workers have to be compensated if they’re laid off,’ says Angela Khoo, human-resources manager for an electronics company in Penang.

Malaysia’s building industry used to employ 300,000 migrants – mostly Indonesians – earning between 1,000 and 1,500 ringgit ($238-357) per month. Faced with a glut of commercial property and a credit squeeze, developers are having to cancel projects, shed jobs and cut wages. Kus, an Indonesian labourer, says: ‘We are farmers back home, and we came here to earn money to send to our families. We are forced to do heavy work for low wages, but we have no choice.’

Liana, an Indonesian maid in Kuala Lumpur, says: ‘I don’t want to go back now, due to the worsening situation there.’ Deputy Home Affairs Minister Tajol Rosli says most of the 140,000 registered overseas maids will be sent back once their permits expire, as they are not helping the country’s foreign-exchange earnings.

Apart from the 1.2 million migrants who have permits, up to 1.8 million others are working illegally. Officials are stepping up attempts to deport them – more than 17,000 Indonesians without documents have been held in crowded detention centres since the beginning of the year. Reports have come in of detainees being poisoned, tortured, starved and killed.

The migrants who must get out of Malaysia fear that there will not be time to organize a safe departure. Fernandez says: ‘We propose that the Government gives a reprieve of at least three months to allow them to work, earn enough to purchase their ticket and return home.’

Anil Netto/Gemini News Service

Wall not so Great

Wall not so Great
The Great Wall of China has been vandalized near the town of Shanhaikuan. Bulldozers have knocked a hole in the wall to build a road, and another section was toppled to expand a vegetable market. Only a small part of the wall north of Beijing has been preserved as a tourist attraction. Many locals do not see the wall as a symbol of national pride but as a reminder of the tyranny of emperors. Others are pragmatic about its use. One local says: ‘I’ll tell you when I care about the Great Wall – when I am very, very rich.’

World Press Review Vol 5 No 3

Nuclear stock
World stockpiles of plutonium will triple over the next 12 years, according to a leaked report by a US company. NAC International, which transports nuclear fuel, predicts that by 2010 the amount of fissile plutonium separated by the world’s nine commercial reprocessing plants will have risen from 140 to 400 tonnes. An atomic bomb can be made from less than five kilograms of fissile plutonium.

New Scientist No 2117

Comic Euro
Governments are using cartoons to try and sell the idea of a single European currency, the Euro. In Italy children can read about the adventures of a duck who tries to replace the 937 types of money on planet Bazar with one currency. A British comic strip on the Internet features Captain Euro and his buxom, blonde sidekick Europa who ‘defends the security of Europe and upholds the values of the union’. A new German children’s book, Die Euro Kids, goes on a European journey to discover whether ‘people really want the new money’ while being followed by a suspicious character in dark sunglasses and a yellow coat who is later revealed to be the European Union Finance Minister. The cartoons are part of a response to polls suggesting only 47 per cent of Europeans support monetary union.

Time Vol 151 No 11


‘We are feeding the chicken in US dollars, but what we get is ringgit (the local currency).’

Chia Keok Keong, secretary of Malaysia’s Federation of Livestock Farmers Association
on why his group sought government approval for a hike in the price of eggs.

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New Internationalist issue 302 magazine cover This article is from the June 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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