Market might in Factory Asia: The struggle to protect labour
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‘Factory Asia’ pejoratively frames a situation of oversupply in low- skilled and underpaid wage labour, where people work in immiserating conditions, deprived of essential opportunities for political organising and the right to freedom of association. The context is such, in part, because the market enjoys considerable leverage and might over states and labour in the region. A range of factors, including capital mobility, the 1997 Asian financial crisis and global neo-liberal pressures, combine to dislocate the state from its role as protectorate and provider, and foreclose on conventional channels that offer protection for workers. This article frames and illustrates these dynamics, and argues that labour encounters a myriad of challenges, but also new opportunities for re-articulation, mobilisation and protection around labour rights. Two case studies, those of Indonesia and Thailand, provide empirical grounding for this thesis and convey both commonalities and contrasts in local labour struggles. In Indonesia, the increasing dislocation of the state needs to be understood in the context of the manifestation of a dual labour market. This has produced contrasting experiences of informal and formal workers. Accordingly, the resilience of traditional models of labour mobilisation (such as unions) diminishes compared to the growing relevance of informal and collective social protection systems. In Thailand, union advocates remain adamant about the need to realise international labour rights norms precisely because of deepening union restrictions and the state’s reluctance to fulfil its duties. Meanwhile, other labour rights groups have sought space, protection and action from duty bearers through non-traditional methods. Relations between these networks can be tense, but they combine into a formidable, even if uncertain, force. In both case studies, the dislocation of the state has led to new and thickening vulnerabilities for labour working in the shadow of the market, but also to unconventional opportunities for protection and mobility.