IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No.17 | Institutes

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4-5 September 1998
Hamburg, Germany

EUROSEAS Conference Panel on 'Changing Labour Relations in South-East Asia'

Eleven speakers from Australia, the Philippines, Great Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands formed a panel at the Euroseas Conference. Their research covered the areas of Java, South Sumatra, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and of South East Asia as a region. Four overlapping themes could be discerned.

By Ratna Saptari


One theme concerned the nature of labour.Thus Jonathan Rigg (University of Durham) gave a broad picture of changing labour markets where the rural-urban divide has become less sharp, where non-farm employment has become much more significant, and doubt has been cast on 'household strategies'. Amarjit Kaur (University of New England) discussed the different conjunctures shaping labour demand in the mining and plantation systems resulting in an ethically and gender-differentiated labour force in these respective systems deriving initially from the colonial system. Daniel Arghiros showed the rapid changes in the labour composition of the brickmaking workforce and the export-industries located in Thailand. The changes in the brickmaking industry particularly came about as a response to changes in the local labour supply. Labour, at first, was composed of local landless and land-poor, then consisted mainly of migrant workers from the Northeast, and later these were replaced by illegal immigrant workers.

Another theme concerned the nature of labour relations as found in specific industries or specific localities. Jennifer Alexander and Paul Alexander concentrating on the export-oriented furniture industry in Java, Indonesia, examined the extent in which the commercial interests of the furniture industry have redefined kin-based relations and terms and vice versa, how kin-based relations utilized relations of production. Arghiros also examined changes in systems of labour control in the workplace following the changes undergone by the brick-making industry.
The third theme was on workers' politics and the trajectories of trade unions (the two not necessarily analogous to one another). Becky Elmhirst (University of Brighton) referring to the Lampungese women migrants who went to the factories of Tangerang, West Java, showed how relations outside the workplace, rather than in the workplace itself, influenced the political behaviour of the Lampungese women workers. In exercising its moral supervision over young migrant women in Tangerang the ethnic and kin-based Lampungese social network also curtailed their possibilities for political participation. Ratna Saptari highlighted the contrasting phenomena of labour politics in two diverse industrial cities in East Java. Labour activism in Surabaya and non-activism in Malang in this period of economic crisis should not be explained by modern-traditional dichotomies or by locational differences. Explanations should be sought in the interplay of various factors, but particularly in state and NGO intervention, industrial structure, and community-level dynamics. Irene Norlund (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Denmark) looked at the changing perceptions of the Vietnamese state on the definition of workers.
The fourth theme concerned the issue of the construction or categorization of labour. Focusing on child labour, Ben White (Institute of Social Studies) pointed out the selective nature of the international discourse on children's work and how this contrasts with the reality of children's work. Since such a discourse is exercised in policy-making circles, it very strongly shapes the legal definition of child labour and children's work and the political positioning of government and non-government organizations regarding this issue - irrespective of whether it reflects children's realities and needs.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No.17 | Institutes