“The last of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have proven that, as a whole, the Association is greater than the sum of its parts.”
This tagline greets everyone who visits ASEAN2017 website. Another tagline, “Partnering for Change Engaging the World” provides the theme for this year’s summit. But how such ‘greatness’ and ‘change’ practically mean for the working class of the region?
The ASEAN leaders together with their big brothers from the North and Asia and the Pacific like the US, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea and China entered and left the Philippines hospitably served by underpaid, non-unionized, contractual employees in the airports, hotels, and fine dining restaurants. Most of them and their entourage may have visited our malls also manned by contractual workers. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had in fact dropped by a popular food chain employing thousands of contractual workers. And we can only assume that the order and cleanliness of their summit halls at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) were assigned to job order (JO) workers who were the version of contractual workers in the public sector. These are only some of the examples.
In other words the working class has always been the partner of ASEAN during and after its pompous summits – but only as such – the hands that serve the ‘great’ leaders, their ministers and staffs, as well as the bosses of industries who are the most important partners of ASEAN. The Association’s ‘greatness’ therefore, does not belong to us. The ‘change’ it portrays was never us.
The region’s civil society organizations (CSOs) describe ASEAN’s half the century of existence as “50 Years of Exclusion”. We agree to that bold conclusion coming from the community of people with grasps of what real life is within the countries of the ASEAN region. The working class movement in the region can only share the same sentiment.
ASEAN, despite the ‘unprecedented growth’ it claims never became a better home for the millions of workers in the region. Not less than one fourth of the region’s population of more than 630 million still live below the poverty line. The region’s ‘stability’ is also nonsense to workers who suffer vulnerability under precarious working conditions with the rise in contractualization and informalization of labor. Half of the region’s workers live on own account under the informal economy while those in the formal sector are burdened by low pay, insecure jobs under contractual employment, and across-the-board violation of other labor standards, including the lack of social protection.
Freedom of association, likewise, is never free in ASEAN. This is the reason why trade union density in most countries in the region is very low compared to other regions. It is only about 8% of paid employees in the Philippines; 9% in Malaysia; around 11% in Indonesia; and less than 5% in Thailand. There are even countries in ASEAN that don’t have reliable database of their labor force. Without unions, workers are subject to abuse and different kinds of exploitation.
So what ‘greatness’ and ‘change’ our ASEAN leaders were talking about? ASEAN 2017 ended at the same time the most important part of the summit ended – the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (ABIS), which has always been the most important event of the summit during the last 50 years. This is because ASEAN was none other than a business conference. It is in this area where trade deals are sealed without major disagreements.
But for other issues like labor and human rights, ASEAN is muted into silence as it is in these issues where ASEAN leaders hold sacred their principle of non-interference -- because ASEAN is purely business.
15 November 2017