In the late 20th century, Southeast Asia was seen a region of “tiger economies” that were the envy of the world. That narrative has vanished. Today, the area is regarded by many as a site of ethnic cleansing, great inequality, and super-exploited labor.
The sorry state of human and labor rights in the region was driven home by three events that captured the world’s attention in the last three months.
Dominating the news was the appalling situation of several thousand Rohingyas fleeing violent persecution in Myanmar or Burma. Hiring smugglers to carry them to safety by sea, the Rohingyas found themselves floating in the high seas, unable to land as neighboring states refused to accept them.
As if the plight of the Rohingyas were not shocking enough, an island in Indonesia was revealed to have illegal fish factories operated with Burmese and Thai forced labor. Relatives of many those kept captive on the island of Benjina had given up hope that they would ever be found. The nightmare turned out to be merely the tip of a multimillion dollar industry built on the backs of slaves with the complicity of Thai and Indonesian authorities.
Then, on May 13, the nightmare of the horrific Bangladesh blaze in November 2012 that immolated scores of garment workers in a factory with no emergency exits, was repeated in the Philippines. Seventy-two workers perished in the Philippines’ worst factory fire, trapped in building with barred windows and no emergency exits. The tragedy exposed once more the extremely unsafe conditions in which unorganized workers are forced to labor for a pittance in the urban industrial belts of Southeast Asia.
Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar
The Rohingya diaspora in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea is the culmination of three years of riots and violent attacks directed at this Muslim minority, who make up 30 percent of the Myanmar state of Rakhine. Tensions between the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority have been building for years, but with the easing of military control as the country makes its jerky transition to democracy, friction has given way to violence, oftentimes sparked by wild allegations of Rohingya men raping Buddhist women. Considering the 1.3 million Rohingya as stateless intruders from neighboring Bangladesh, the military has largely left them to the tender mercies of Buddhist mobs that have often been led by monks. The result has been the region’s worst case of ethnic cleansing.
To escape brutal persecution, many Rohingya have increasingly resorted to flight, contracting smugglers and traffickers to bring them by sea and land to other countries. This option has turned out to be as perilous as staying. Traffickers have sold many Rohingya, along with other Burmese, as forced labor to the notorious Thai fishing industry. Some 7000 crammed into fragile boats have been floating aimlessly in the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea, their attempts to make landfall prevented by the navies of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
With pressure exerted on them by other the United Nations and international bodies, Myanmar’s neighbors have recently softened their stance. The Philippines said it considered the Rohingya as refugees and offered to take some 3000 of them. Heavily criticized for turning away the Rohingya, Malaysia and Indonesia grudgingly agreed to also provide the refugees temporary shelter. Thailand, however, made clear it would not offer them asylum, a hardline stance that was also adopted by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Voices from all over the globe, including the United Nations General Assembly, have called on the Myanmar government to end the ethnic cleansing and give citizenship rights to the Rohingya. One voice, however, has been notably silent, that of Nobel Prize laureate Auung Sang Suu Kyi. Never in the last three years has she spoken on behalf of the Rohingya, even if only to ask her Buddhist compatriots to stop persecuting them. Owing to international pressure, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has, finally and grudgingly, called for citizenship for the Rohingya, but the statement was not issued in her name. Much speculation on her silence centers on her not wanting to offend the country’s Buddhist majority whose votes her party needs in Burma’s coming electoral contests and she herself would need should she be allowed to run for president by the military. But the longer “Daw Suu,” as she is known in Burma, stays silent, the more people will come to the conclusion that she herself does not believe the Rohingya deserve to be citizens, the more she will be regarded as complicit in genocide, the more her status as a global moral icon will be eroded.
Slave Labor in Thailand’s Fishing Industry
What a superb Associated Press investigative report on forced labor in the Indonesian island of Benjina that appeared in March of this year did was to call world attention to what many in Southeast Asia regarded as one of the region’s dirty secrets: the dependence of the Thai fishing industry on slavery.
The resort to slave labor, according to a report by the International Labor Organization and the Asian Research Center for Migration of Chulalongkorn University, stems from profits being squeezed by smaller catches, higher fuel costs, and the reluctance of Thais to be employed in what is increasingly perceived as low-paid hazardous work involving long periods at sea. Foreign workers, especially from Burma and Cambodia, have been the solution for Thai fishing and canning factories, and smuggling networks have sprang up to recruit workers in the two countries. Deception is almost invariably involved, with prospective workers told they will be hired in construction or agriculture at relatively high rates of pay only to find themselves at the end of the journey sold to fishing vessels working for a pittance or nothing.
Once in the hands of traffickers, undocumented workers are treated brutally, and recently discovered mass graves, reportedly containing the remains of hundreds of people along smuggling routes in Thailand and Malaysia are mute testimony to what happens to those who get sick, meet accidents, or resist.
Government officials are often worse than useless for exploited migrants. As the ILO-Asian Research Center for Migration notes, “The direct involvement and/or facilitation of law enforcement officials in these crimes is a significant problem that has remained inadequately addressed. Although authorities reportedly investigated several cases of complicity by law enforcements officials during 2011-2012, no prosecutions or convictions were carried through.” Not surprisingly, “rather than seeking out protection for abuses or filing complaints to the proper authorities, many migrant fishers will choose to keep quiet out of fear of blacklisting, arrest or deportation.”
The Philippines: A Decimated Working Class
Government complicity was also instrumental in the Philippines’ worst factory fire on May 13. An investigation carried out by the author, which included interviews with some 30 survivors, revealed that the factory, Kentex, was issued clearances for occupational and fire safety by the relevant national and local authorities despite the fact that it had no emergency exits, the windows were barred, no fire drills were conducted, and no serious fire inspections were carried out.
The obviously lax enforcement of safety regulations is not accidental, according to observers. Kentex incarnated the Philippine government’s stance of going easy on capitalists since they are seen to be the source of growth, wealth, and jobs.
The ruling ideology of neoliberalism, which would eliminate as much regulation of capital as possible, was also evident in the work force of the firm, which produced “Havanas” or flipflops and other footwear for the domestic market and for export. According to the survivors, some 20 per cent of the work force were casual workers or “pakyawan,” including some minors brought in by their mothers to earn some extra money for the family for the summer. They received 202 pesos (US$4.50) for a day’s work, or less than half the current minimum wage for the national capital region.
Another 40 to 60 per cent were contractual workers people recruited by a “manpower agency,” an organization devised to allow employers to avoid regularization of workers and their unionization. While these non-unionized workers received the minimum daily wage of 481 pesos ($10.8), the agency skimmed off the required social security, health, and housing benefits provided by the employer. “They don’t pay our monthly installments,” was the angry response of the survivors when I raised the issue.
At the most, 20 per cent of the workers were regular workers who were members of a union. But as one of the union members himself volunteered, cynically, “We are a company union.”
Kentex is a microcosm of labor-capital relations in the Philippines and much of Southeast Asia today. The trend toward contractualization, pushed by local and foreign investors, accommodated by government, and legitimized by economists, has led to the disorganization and de-unionization of the labor force. Today, only about 10 per cent of the Philippine work force is organized, with one prominent labor leader admitting that, “Ironically, labor unions are not as politically strong today as during the dictatorial regime of President Marcos.”
In his “State of the Nation” address in July of last year, President Benigno Aquino III boasted that there were only two cases of workers’ strikes in 2013 and only one in 2014. That the president considered this news as positive only showed how detached from workers’ reality he was, for the radical reduction of the number of strikes does not come from improving living standards but from the weakening of labor’s bargaining power owing to pro-management policies, government failure of enforce labor laws, and aggressive union-busting by employers.
Legislative efforts to reverse contractualization by limiting the number of workers a firm may hire to 20 percent or less have either died in committee or failed to make it to plenary deliberations in the Philippines’ House of Representativcs. In a dialogue with labor leaders in 2013, Aquino himself said he opposed limits to contractualization since this would “eliminate 10 million jobs.” Challenged by the astonished labor leaders, the president could not name his source for his claim.
However, a growing number of economic analysts, like Jesus Felipe of the Asian Development Bank, are departing from this orthodox view. According to them, it is precisely the absence of a dynamic internal market owing to the lack of purchasing power by a large segment of the labor force that are doomed to low wages that accounts for the inability of the Philippine economy to achieve sustained take-off.
Some labor leaders see a silver lining in the Kentex tragedy. “The 72 lives lost were a terrible, terrible loss,” said Josua Mata, secretary general of the labor federation Sentro. “But if this tragedy brings to the national consciousness the unacceptable state to which management and government have reduced our workers and inaugurates an era of reform, then their sacrifice might not be in vain.” That remains to be seen.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is scheduled to become “one integrated regional economy” by the end of 2015. No one is celebrating the occasion except perhaps the diplomats that negotiated the agreement. Pundits remark cynically that instead of integrating dynamic tiger economies, ASEAN integration will pool together societies with unsolved, deep-seated social problems.
Until his resignation from the House of Representatives of the Republic of the Philippines two months ago owing to differences with the Aquino administration, Telesur columnist Walden Bello chaired the House Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs and was one of the principal authors of the Security of Tenure Bill designed to end contractualization.