IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No.17 | Institutes

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26 June 1998
Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands

ICAS Panel on 'Changing Industrial Labour Relations in Asia'

At the International Convention of Asia Scholars in June this year, the CLARA programme organized a panel consisting of four speakers who highlighted the diversities shaping the varying scenarios for labour relations in Asia.

By: Ratna Saptari


Bernard Thomann (Institut d'Asie Orientale, Lyon) focused on changes in Japanese-style management as a result of economic recession. In the past, the Japanese economy was based on a unique form of regulation between the interests of the labour and those of the capital based on a 'micro-corporatist' compromise. This Japanese-style 'micro-compromise' can be characterized as creating job stability but with flexible labour conditions; promoting identification of workers' interests with those of the employer. Secondly, there is a large peripheral workforce which is excluded from the micro-corporatist compromise and therefore can be easily adjusted to help preserve the job stability of the core workforce. Thirdly, the labour movement has been dominated by entreprise unions which only defended the interest of the core employees and were not able to develop a horizontal solidarity and a class struggle ideology. However, with the oil crisis and the more recent monetary crisis, some very careful reforms of the Japanese-style management have been taking place in order to adapt the system to those new challenges. The question is what this would mean for labour relations?

Sun Wen-Bin (Centre for Asian Studies, Hongkong) looked particularly at labour disputes in South China. Labour disputes have increased dramatically since the beginning of the economic reform in 1987. According to the data from the Ministry of Labour in China, in 1996 there was a 264 per cent increase in labour disputes compared to the previous year's figure. Examining the working conditions in Shenzhen, there should be more disputes on dangerous working conditions, long working hours with extremely low pay, and harsh work regulations and punishments, but, these are seldom the causes for the registered labour disputes. Wen Bin discussed this phenomenon in the light of institutional constraints, official understanding of economic development as well as worker's choices.
Karin Kapadia (Christian Michelsen Institute, Norway), focused on the changes occurring within the synthetic gem industry, when the domestic-oriented gem industry in Tamil Nadu, India was marginalized by the rapidly expanding export-oriented manufacture. These changes were most tangible in the changing composition of the workforce. A bonded labour force consisting of evenly divided numbers of men and women aged between six to sixty was replaced by a preponderantly young female workforce aged between fifteen to twenty-three, largely from lower middle-class families. Explanations of this change in the labour force are among others: unstable markets requiring a flexible workforce, new technology and the transformation of caste and kinship relations in the local labour-supplying areas.
Ratna Saptari (International Institute of Social History/International Institute for Asian Studies) focused on the dilemmas of resistance in the Javanese cigarette industry and the nature and form collective action which may be coloured by collaboration and accommodation at the same time. This condition reflects the national and workplace level dynamics, as well as the historical background to the industry in the area. Contradictions emerge because of the competition between companies, the local labour markets, and the nature of cigarette-manufacturing employment, which on the one hand is exploitative but on the other hand provides a better source of income than other jobs in the locality. Therefore these structures may serve as a constraint on the emergence of regular and continuous collective action, but at the same time they may provide social and political space for women workers. In response to these papers, discussions focused particularly on the nature of capital which constitutes different interests and which in the past tended to be looked upon as homogeneous; and on the nature trade unions that managed to survive taking into account the fragmented labour force and the flexibility often linked to uncertain markets.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No.17 | Institutes