Impressive economic growth has not translated into better working conditions

While Asian economies boomed before the global recession in 2008, the fruits of that progress did not translate into better wages or secure employment conditions for workers in the region. The International Labour Organisation (ILO)'s Asian Decent Work Decade launched in 2006 was aimed at five priority areas of competitiveness, productivity and jobs; labour market governance; youth employment, managing labour migration and local development for poverty reduction.

Today workers' unions are raising the issue of jobs that are precarious and without any social security, and women by far are worse off. At discussions during the 15th Asia and the Pacific Regional Meeting (ARPM) on social protection policies on Monday, trade unions pointed to the unacceptable growing inequality in the region and said growth was not inclusive. The impressive economic growth had not translated into fair economic distribution like good living wages or effective labour market interventions, according to Noriyuki Suzuki, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Asia Pacific. There was a need to create quality jobs and reduce short-term precarious employment, he said.

Another area of concern was the 15 billion Asians living outside their countries and this formed one-fourth of the world's migrant population. The other issue was the appalling condition of domestic workers and there was an urgent need to ratify and implement the ILO convention on domestic workers. Trade union workers had little protection and in countries like Fiji there were attempts to dismantle unions and harass leaders, Mr. Suzuki said. In Bahrain too, about 2000 workers were dismissed from their jobs, according to Mustapha Said, senior specialist for trade unions in Arab countries for the ILO. Apart from Bahrain, only Kuwait and Oman had unions and in other Gulf countries, workers were treated like slaves. In the Arab states, totalitarian regimes ensured workers had no free voice.

Jiang Guang Ping from the All China Federation of Trade Unions said 70 per cent of the world's working poor lived in the Asia-Pacific region. While the economy grew fast, the jobs that were created were low paid and informal. Women got only 60 to 70 per cent of the wages men were paid. While multinational companies played a major role in shaping the global economy, they were poor in implementing labour standards, he pointed out. There was a need to rebalance the growth model with emphasis on decent well-paid work and jobs with high labour standards. He called for a minimum wage policy.

Mr Ping said the problem was the quality of jobs. “We don't think it's a job at all and such work was damaging to the family and society.” While people were arguing for flexible labour markets, he said that it was better to have a controlled labour market to avoid precarious work. China is changing its economic policy and trying to move away from an export oriented one to focus more on its domestic economy, according to Yadong Wang, deputy director-general, employment promotion department. It also has a strong employment promotion strategy.

However, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, assistant secretary-general for Economic Development in the United Nations, said that while the Asia-Pacific region had done really well, the situation was grim and growth was coming down. Representatives of employers' organisations like Kanishka Weerasinghe from Sri Lanka said social development had to go hand in hand with economic progress. Ms. Sudha Pillai, Member of India's Planning Commission, said that “you cannot have a one-size-fits-all policy.” Policy coherence was important and there was a need to resolve contradictions in trade, fiscal, monetary and other policies.

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