Monthly Archives: May 2013

Workers rally for better conditions on May Day

Tens of thousands of low-paid workers took to the streets in Asia on May Day to demand higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions a week after a Bangladesh garment factory building collapse killed hundreds — a grim reminder of how lax safety regulations make going to work a danger in many poor countries.

A Cambodian garment factory worker, left, has her face painted with the US currency sign as she joins a rally on May Day in Phnom Penh.

Labourers in Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines and elsewhere marched and chanted en masse Wednesday, sounding complaints about being squeezed by big business amid the surging cost of living.

Asia is the manufacturing ground for many of the world’s largest multinational companies.

Thousands of garment factory workers in Bangladesh also paraded through the streets screaming for safeguards to be put in place and for the owner of the collapsed building to be sentenced to death.

In Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country, tens of thousands of workers rallied for higher pay and an end to the practice of outsourcing jobs to contract workers, among other demands. Some also carried banners and protested against a proposed plan for the government to slash fuel subsidies that have kept the country’s pump prices among the cheapest in the region.

A day earlier, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the country can no longer afford to pay to keep fuel prices low, given a growing budget deficit. The government is trying to iron out a plan that would help offset the increase among the poor who would be most affected by it. Most factory workers earn about US$120 a month. In 2011, the subsidy bill ran close to $20 billion, the same amount the government plans to spend on infrastructure this year.

In the Philippines, an estimated 8,000 workers marched in the capital, Manila, to also demand better pay and regular jobs instead of contractual work.

“Wage increase, increase!” members of a coalition of workers’ groups chanted while holding steamers that also called for lower food and utility prices.

Some workers rallied outside the United States embassy, torching a wooden painting stamped with the words “low wages” and “union busting” that depicted Philippine President Benigno Aquino III as a lackey of US President Barack Obama.

Aquino on Tuesday rejected proposals that included salary increases and the exemption of workers’ bonuses from taxes. Instead, he announced plans to equalise government and private sector workers’ benefits, but also add a slight increase in contributions.

Workers’ Party chairman Renato Magtubo assailed Aquino for offering “scraps meant for slaves”.

More than 10,000 Taiwanese workers also protested a government reform plan to cut pension payouts to solve worsening fiscal problems, saying the payout cuts reflect a longstanding government policy to bolster economic growth at the expense of workers’ benefits and compromised workplace safety.

Analysts say the poor income level has forced many young Taiwanese to share housing with their parents and delay marriages.

In Cambodia, more than 5,000 garment workers marched in Phnom Penh, demanding better working conditions and a salary increase from $80 to $150 a month. About a half million people work in the country’s $4.6 billion garment industry that makes brand name clothes for many US and European retailers.

The garment industry has come under fire since an illegally built eight-story building collapsed last week in Bangladesh, bringing down five garment factories and killing more than 400 people. The collapse followed a garment factory fire in November when 112 people died.

A loud procession of workers wound through central Dhaka, waving the national flag and chanting “direct action!” and “death penalty!” while one participant vowed the deaths would not be in vain.

“My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless.”

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Labour Day

Labour Day food for thought in Asia

Hundreds of millions of workers across Asia – and the rest of the world – are enjoying a holiday to mark International Labour Day.

But as the labour movement is celebrated, last week’s factory collapse in Bangladesh is just one example of how workers’ rights in this region often come off second best in the rush for profits.

Even in the most developed Asian economies there are challenges, whether it’s better conditions, creating new jobs to satisfy demand – or even finding the right worker.

South Korea and India are just two examples of how different the challenges can be.

Fighting for the eight-hour working day!

International Workers’ Day

Samuel Parnell

Samuel Parnell

Labour Day commemorates the struggle for an eight-hour working day. New Zealand workers were among the first in the world to claim this right when, in 1840, the carpenter Samuel Parnell won an eight-hour day in Wellington. Labour Day was first celebrated in New Zealand on 28 October 1890, when several thousand trade union members and supporters attended parades in the main centres. Government employees were given the day off to attend the parades and many businesses closed for at least part of the day.

The date, 28 October, marked the first anniversary of the establishment of the Maritime Council, an organisation of transport and mining unions. The fledgling union movement was decimated by defeat in a trans-Tasman Maritime Strike in late 1890 but, despite this, the first Labour Day was a huge success. In Wellington, the highlight was an appearance by the elderly Parnell, who died just a few weeks later. From the mid-1890s the union movement began to recover slowly under the Liberal government. The Liberals’ industrial conciliation and arbitration system, introduced in 1894, earned New Zealand a reputation of being a ‘working man’s paradise’ and a ‘country without strikes’.

Early Labour Day parades drew huge crowds in places such as Palmerston North and Napier as well as in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Unionists and supporters marched behind colourful banners and ornate floats, and the parades were followed by popular picnics and sports events.

These parades also had a political purpose. Although workers in some industries had long enjoyed an eight-hour day, it was not a legal entitlement. Other workers, including seamen, farm labourers, and hotel, restaurant and shop employees, still worked much longer hours. Many also endured unpleasant and sometimes dangerous working conditions. Unionists wanted the Liberals to pass legislation enforcing an eight-hour day for all workers, but the government was reluctant to antagonise the business community.

What the Liberals did do was make Labour Day a holiday. The Labour Day Act of 1899 created a statutory public holiday on the second Wednesday in October, first celebrated in 1900. The holiday was ‘Mondayised’ in 1910, and since then it has been held on the fourth Monday in October.

In the first decade of the 20th century industrial unrest reappeared. The Liberal government was in decline, prices were rising and the Arbitration Court was seen as reluctant to raise wages. The more militant labour movement that emerged from around 1908 rejected the Liberals’ arbitration system and condemned the increasing commercialisation of Labour Day parades. Many floats advertised businesses as well as temperance organisations, theatres, circuses and patriotic causes. Some socialists promoted May Day (1 May) as an alternative celebration of workers’ struggles. Although unionists and their supporters continued to hold popular gatherings and sports events, by the 1920s Labour Day had begun to decline as a public spectacle. For most New Zealanders, it was now just another holiday.

Cambodian garment workers rallied in the streets of Phnom Penh to demand higher wages on 1 May. They were among hundreds of millions of demonstrators taking part in action across the world.

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