Unions and Safety in Developing Asia

Ordinarily, I would be happy to let others deal with Jagdish Bhagwati and Amrita Narlikar’s egregious Financial Times Op-Ed on the aftermath of the Bangladesh factory disaster. In it, they argue that Western corporations should not take responsibility for the conditions of the factories in which their products are made, arguing, typically if somewhat sickeningly, that to do so will harm the workers more than it helps due to increases in the price of the goods.

However, they make the claim that “Again, there is no correlation between unionisation and safety. In the US, industrial fires have become rare while unionisation rates have fallen to negligible levels in the past four decades. The garment industries in Vietnam and China have experienced few fires, even though unions do not exist.” That launches them into my ballpark, and so I will happily punt their disingenuous article right back at them.

As someone who has written several articles and academic papers on the subject, I can say with authority that there are most certainly unions in China and Vietnam. Granted, they are state-run, and the Chinese ACFTU in particular has a long way to go before calling itself an effective advocate for workers’ rights, but they, grassroots labour movements and other institutions with an interest in labour peace, such as the Vietnamese Ministry of Labour, have moved mountains for workers’ safety, and continue to do so. There is a direct correlation between labour organisation and worker safety, whether the organisation is formal or informal– in fact, through no other means can workers in industrialising nations expect to secure their safety. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in China and Vietnam.

Because there is no pity left in me after reading this article, I’ll just lay it on.

An early case was that of silicosis-affected workers in the Chinese gemstone industry. When management attempted to evade responsibility through deception and coercion, the workers fruitlessly exhausted every avenue in local government, including the unions, the labour bureau and the courts. Although the legal process tried to segregate their individual cases, group dissatisfaction led to escalating demonstrations with support from workers at multiple factories. They sought and gained international publicity. Finally, only by travelling to Beijing were the gemstone workers able to have the matter taken out of the corrupt hands of their local government.

Since that time, both China and Vietnam have introduced labour laws and safety regulations that in theory are among the best in Asia, largely through the influence of their respective unions. Although wary of funding grassroots organisation among the workers for political reasons, both unions have been extremely active in the legislative arena, trying to get effective safety and quality of life legislation in place. Enforcement, as we see below, is far better in Vietnam than in China, but nevertheless, the unions in both countries are the main official movers behind workplace safety. The other side of the coin, of course, is grassroots worker organisation and protest- the larger it is, the more both party-states have an interest in placating it.

The Vietnamese state union, the VGCL, has evolved a number of alternate means of representation and labour advocacy which bypass the ineffective workplace unions. The VGCL-run labour newspapers, especially the national Lao Dong (Labour) and Ho Chi Minh City Nguoi Lao Dong (Labourer), can provide an alternate channel for worker grievances. Workers can tip off the papers to abuses and impending disturbances in person, in writing or via 24 hour hotline, and the newspaper will send investigative journalists. These papers sort, analyse and publish grievances, as well as he causes of strikes. They have some freedom to criticise ineffective government monitoring and sanctions, as well as harmful industrial practices such as maintaining shell companies.

With independent budgets based on advertising, staffed by young journalists responsible for discrete areas who know the workers’ conditions and backed by a loyal readership, these papers can effectively facilitate conversations between workers, government and industry. This public forum not only puts pressure on the union and government to act, but moves the issue of labour rights into the realm of public input and debate, a conversation that may be the most direct and effective link between workers’ concerns and official action.

Vietnamese unions may also join international unions and accept international donations. Vietnam sees improved labour practices as a means of attracting investment. The VGCL has been able to take advantage of the anti-sweatshop movement and emerging international standards, for example by collaborating with Social Accountability International with funding from the US State Department to improve labour standards, simultaneously urging factories to apply for SA8000 certification. The “foreign” nature of these standards is not seen as outside interference nor is it a cause for debate. If anything, these efforts constitute a new kind of effort to expand market access and investment.

The VGCL notably also permits its constituent regional and industrial organisations to engage with international labour organisations. Several of the industrial unions have taken the opportunity to connect with international unions in corresponding industries. While VGCL officials have made it quite clear that “propaganda… about independent/multi-labour unions, apolitical labour unions, labour unions fighting for economic goals etc.” is to be resisted, this political boilerplate has not deterred it from productive engagement.

The VGCL, and particularly the National Union of Industrial Workers, has been able to translate its freedom to associate with international unions into both a knowledge of international labour issues and considerable freedom of action. The VGCL delegation to an International Garment, Textile and Leatherworkers’ Federation workshop which proposed negotiating a Southeast Asian framework agreement with Pou Chen, the largest footware production company in the world, was able to immediately pledge participation without consulting with higher authorities. The head of the delegation was vice president of the NUIW.

The VGCL and Ministry of Labour have benefitted from the technical assistance and training provided by the ILO and international unions, although this does not filter down to workplace unions. Corporate codes of conduct originating overseas seem to be gaining ground enforcing labour rights in Vietnam where the VGCL is not. Third party international monitoring of labour practices is increasingly common. In all of these areas, the VGCL and Ministry of Labour have shown themselves politically able to both accept foreign assistance and use it pragmatically to enhance their own domestic programs and goals.

There is also a difference between the state unions of China and Vietnam. Managers imported from the PRC to work in Taiwanese factories in Vietnam not only noted the marked difference in the power of factories to violate labour laws, for instance through illegal overtime, but attributed it to a proactive attitude on the part of the government. One said, “In China, we had to work much longer, sometimes until 1:00 or 2:00 am… In Vietnam, you cannot force workers to work after 10:00 pm. Why is there such a difference? The government. The Chinese government wants to make money and therefore just neglects workers’ rights.” Likewise, the VGCL’s struggles with the government have been widely reported, giving it significant credibility, while the ACFTU cannot hope for such ideological autonomy.

And this attitude extends to other branches of the Vietnamese government. In Ho Chi Minh City, the local Department of Labour was so convinced of the importance of labour peace that they made it a practice to go out and find workforce complaints and make sure that they were properly mediated, rather than waiting for the workers to come forward.

In summary, even state unions have critical roles to play in enforcing workplace safety, particularly in Vietnam. Bhagwati and Narlikar place the responsibility for safety solely on the employers, as though without pressure from their international customers or effective labour organisation they would have an incentive to do anything about worker safety, even if, as the authors suggest, the West provides safety experts to help them. Every measure of progress in this area in the developing world has occurred because of increased awareness on the part of foreign companies and investors, and increased organisation on the part of the workers and those paid to represent their interests.

Does this reduce the ability of industrial development to ‘lift the workers out of poverty’? I would argue that it is seldom the workers who are lifted out of poverty- witness the Chinese migrant workers who since 2009 have begun staying home on their farms rather than coming to the cities to work long hours in dangerous workplaces for wages that will never allow them to improve their own standard of living. But as long as the workers are helping the managers out of poverty, and helping us to cheap goods, making sure that they stay alive through that process seems like the least we can do.

It would be one thing if Bhagwati and Narlikar had critiqued the effectiveness of the particular approaches being taken in the case of Bangladesh and proposed effective alternatives. Instead, their conclusion boils down to “Blame the owners but do not try to penalise them or provide any structural means of assuring worker safety, and it will all work out.” In that, their article is not merely useless, but camouflage for the indifference of trickle-down economics at its worst.