Human Rights and Labor in the Pacific Rim

by Fran Marsh

The plight of Pacific Rim workers, their futures imperiled by the Asian economic crisis, is the subject of a conference Jan. 29 and 30 at Berkeley.

The Center for Labor Research and Education will host the two-day meeting, "Human Rights and Labor Solidarity: Working in the Pacific Rim."

The event aims to better inform California labor leaders about international labor issues and will highlight coordinated efforts between the United States and Pacific Rim labor movements.

"Our unions would encourage their banding together," said Professor George Strauss, director emeritus of the Institute of Industrial Relations. "American workers do not want to compete against people who are being exploited, or against child labor."

Pacific Rim workers turn out a range of products. While some still weave baskets, increasing numbers work in more advanced production: textiles, electronics and software in Singapore; ship building, autos and steel in Korea; hardware in Malaysia.

"So far, many countries have been able to keep wages low by keeping unionism under control," said Strauss. "But as they move into higher technology areas, they need worker input. And participation can bring militancy."

The conference is a rare gathering of labor leaders, human rights activists and academics from South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Australia, South Africa, Russia, the United States, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Issues range from women's and children's labor to building a labor movement independent of the state.

Participants will also discuss causes and solutions related to worker repression, globalization, development, and interaction of the state and multi-national firms.

Among the speakers is Kwon Young-kil, a former South Korean presidential candidate. Under Kwon's leadership, an independent 500,000-member trade union organized a massive general strike in December 1996 to protest proposed restrictive labor legislation. The action was the largest general strike the country had seen in 45 years.

Now the International Monetary Fund has called for new legislation allowing massive layoffs in all industries. Labor leaders oppose such measures and will soon cast a strike vote.

South Korea, whose workers toil a 48-hour week, has followed the Japanese model of life-time employment. The country has enjoyed low levels of unemployment, with wages rising 8 to 10 percent a year. With these conditions, there was no need for a safety net. But now workers are experiencing "honorary retirements."

Further layoffs brought on by IMF action could lead to financial destitution for many more workers.

Other speakers include:

  • Rekson Silaban, international affairs director, Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union
  • Phanomwan Yoodee of Thailand
  • Maung Maung, general secretary, Trade Union Federation of Burma. (Maung is currently in exile in Washington, D.C.)

The Center for Labor Research and Education is a policy and education center of Berkeley's Institute of Industrial Relations.

The center brings together faculty and graduate students from the departments of economics, geography, political science, sociology and psychology and the schools of social welfare, public health, business, education and law with leaders from more than 100 local unions in the public and private sectors.

Labor Center research is disseminated to the labor community and the public through policy papers, pamphlets, books and newspaper articles. Center activities include research and training projects for individual unions, multi-union seminars and conferences, academic research and instruction.

The conference will be held at International House from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30. Cost is $25 for two days, $10 for students.To register, call Jacob Ely, 642-0323.


Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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