Workers at a garment factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, went on strike at the end of last month in protest against the dismissal of one of their union officials. The factory produces for Gap, Benetton and Adidas, whose customers have long benefited from low-cost Asian labour. But union militancy in Cambodia’s textile sector can now count some successes: the minimum wage went up by $11 a month in July – less than the unions wanted, but enough to end the wave of strikes.
The large, even heroic, tasks of protecting rights might be declining sharply in developed nations. But they are increasingly common in the catch-up world – especially in China and south east Asia. In many recently (or still) communist countries, labour remains exploited and union activism is badly needed.
is the most eye-catching example. Strikes swept through foreign-owned companies – including Honda, Hyundai, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Toyota – in the south of the country in June, in spite of heavy attention by police. Unofficial as they were, they worked. Party leaders, including Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, called for improved wages and conditions, especially for the low paid and precarious migrant workers, who have formed much of the work force in areas such as Guangdong.
Mr Wen told an audience in Beijing that migrants’ work “is glorious and should be respected by society at large. Migrant workers should be cared for, protected and respected.” However, as Simon Clarke of Warwick University, who studies unions in Russia and China, stresses, independent unions in China and south east Asia are often fleeting, while membership remains hazardous. Official unions, unused to militancy, even try to suppress activism.
A similar problem is true in Russia, where the legacy of unions wholly dominated – indeed, created – by the Communist party lingers. In post-communist Russia, control by the party has been replaced by control by the state. Established unions suffer from a pervasive culture of poor civic and political activism. As Simon Clarke puts it, Russia’s labour movement “is completely under the thumb of [prime minister] Vladimir Putin.”
Yet even if Russia isn’t following suit, the growing strength of unions in Asia is a welcome move; one which will put pressure on the regimes to increase domestic consumption, raise skill levels and develop social and welfare services, especially for migrant workers. True, neither the remaining Communist parties (as in China and Vietnam) nor the old official unions will want to relinquish control that has served them well. Even so, bolstered by newer campaigning unions, the economic struggle can be waged hopefully.
Success is a much fainter hope in the west, where unions suffer from a past seen as noble and a present seen as irrelevant. But now with austerity as the posture of choice, unions scramble to reassert themselves. British unions are planning an autumn of discontent with demonstrations, special conferences and possible strikes. That said, French public sector workers, British Airways cabin crew and Greek workers in any sector – all have tested the resolve of their governments and none have succeeded.
Indeed, in rich countries unions continue to weaken, especially in the private sector. Even in Germany, where co-operation with employers has ensured power at corporate level, they have been helpless to stop loss of income, to cancel cuts, or to change the government’s mind on raising the retirement age to 67. At the conference in June of the federal unions (DGB) delegates seemed to agree with the centre-right chancellor Angela Merkel – who addressed the union to mild applause rather than catcalls – that “very hard years lie ahead”. Michael Sommer, the DGB chairman, lauded the government’s commitment to social equilibrium – which has meant, in practice, acceptance of layoffs and wage cuts.
Yet they might also raise their sights: for if they are unlikely to succeed in their traditional search for better wages they might fare better by returning to the moral force they mobilised in early years. Vast discrepancies in earnings between the bulk of salary earners and those at the top of the corporate sectors can unite ethics and polemics. Labour movements have a chance to sway public opinion and in so doing regain a status they lost with their draining of members and shrinking of ambitions.
If not, the declining unions of the developed world may begin to look jealously at the achievements of their less privileged equivalents. “The union makes us strong” was ever the slogan of workers’ movements. But the contrasting strengths of unions east and west illuminate one basic fact: unions do well for their members in rising economies, but in more austere times, moral suasion is their best – and perhaps only – card.
Monday, August 9, 2010
A sympthetic essay in today's FT, comparing unions in Asia and the "developed" West: