Written by Kevin Lin.
Image credit: 20110226-IMG_8753 by Steve Stearns/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0
In mid-August 2018, over 250 labour activists from more than a dozen countries across Asia spent three days in Taipei at the first Labour Notes regional conference. The gathering was meant to highlight the serious labour organising in Asia and discuss the ways forward. It was a unique occasion in many ways. Most of the regional labour conferences in Asia understandably tend to focus on particular sectors or campaigns or are open only to specific networks of unions and labour organisations. This conference instead aimed to be broader, spanning multiple issues and sectors, and was open to all organisations and individuals.
The more than two dozen sessions included topics on strike-organising, migrant labour organising, the #metoo movement and gender-based violence, Chinese overseas investment, building union democracy, organising precarious workers, and corporate research. The variety of formats, including panel discussions, strategy sessions and organising training, enabled space for sector-specific or issue-specific discussions as well as organising skill-building beyond any one particular sector. The conference revealed a clear need for such a gathering.
As one of the conference organisers in the lead-up to the Labour Notes Asia regional conference in Taipei, I was often asked variations of the same question: why are US-based labour groups holding a regional labour conference in Taiwan? Answering this question provided me with an opportunity to discuss the labour movements in Taiwan and in Asia more broadly. Here is a more elaborate version of my response which I hope will tease out some interesting issues.
Why Labour Notes?
Labour Notes is a labour organisation and monthly publication that has just celebrated its 40th year. It holds a conference in Chicago every two years for rank-and-file union organisers across the country. There is a personal aspect of my collaboration with Labour Notes. My association with Labour Notes reaches all the way back to 2012, the first time I attended a Labour Notes conference in Chicago. I have since twice more participated in the conference, both taking part in and facilitating panels on labour in China and Asia.
Many things drew me to the conference and Labour Notes. They insist on a rank-and-file organising approach against the business unionism and union bureaucracy that we see in labour movements in the US and elsewhere. This focus on the basics of organising and collective actions mirrored my interest in workers’ strikes in mainland China. I was also interested by the diversity of union organisers across sectors and occupations at the conference.
Internationalism is integral to the conference. Panels on labour organising in Latin America and Asia are some of the highlights. In recent years, the Secrets of a Successful Organiser, a training manual published by Labour Notes that distilled decades of labour organising, has been translated into Japanese and Chinese, and Japanese unions have used the book for training.
This is a no-brainer. There is amazing labour organising sharing many themes across East, South and Southeast Asia. One such example is labour migration. The rights of migrant workers as factory workers, domestic helpers and fishermen posed a particular challenge of labour protection to destinations such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as for the sending countries: the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. Migrant organizing has been extremely impressive.
Another shared theme is strike. Strike is used regularly by workers in Asia as a weapon against exploitation and is precipitated by low wages, horrible working conditions, and the mobility of factories. Many participants already knew about the EVA Airlines flight attendants’ union strike, the first such strike in Taiwan in many years. It was not an easy win, however, as the company and media went on an intense public campaign against the union. Nevertheless, it revived the question of strikes. In the rest of Asia, places like China and Burma see large numbers of strikes each year. Just prior to the conference in early August, a general strike was organised in Hong Kong as part of their struggle for more democratic rights.
This question is asked most often by Taiwanese labour activists. This is in part because Taiwan’s labour movement has often been forgotten in discussions of Asian labour movements. Much of the international focus of labour organising in Asia is centred on organising in manufacturing and under authoritarian governments. As a post-industrial economy, Taiwan gets less attention than developing economies with burgeoning export-oriented manufacturing sectors where labour protests tend to be among the most intense. The decades-old relocation of manufacturing from Taiwan to the rest of Asia means that Taiwanese capital remained dominant in the region, but the labour movement in Taiwan itself was weakened.
But experiences of labour organising in Taiwan could be valuable to the rest of Asia. The role of Taiwanese capital outside of just Taiwan is important to international labour solidarity. Taiwan’s democratic space is another asset of the labour movement. As labour movements elsewhere in Asia often operate under authoritarian politics, Taiwan could become an important regional hub for gathering and discussion.
This conference was merely one small step in creating a space where labour groups and unions in Taiwan can make and strengthen connections with groups in the rest of Asia and internationally. One of the central themes of the conference was how to build international labour solidarity. Asia is fractured by competing nationalisms and a lack of trust arising from historical and contemporary conflicts. But you wouldn’t notice anything remotely nationalistic at the conference. There was remarkable solidarity shown by participates at a protest at the Hon Hai headquarters for dismissing Filipino workers at its Japanese facility.
Moving forward, there are other issues in need of more discussion. Chinese foreign investment and its impact on labour rights, the labour and environmental impact of fishing by migrant labour in Taiwan, Thailand and elsewhere, and how to organise under repression in places like China, Bangladesh and Cambodia and the Philippines, are all issues to which the Taiwanese labour movement can contribute.
In an era of US-China rivalry that dominates the headlines and frames our mind in nationalistic terms, this gathering offered a glimpse of a different narrative – international labour solidarity based on shared struggles, not nationalist rivalries that pit entire populations against one another. The labour movement must be international and internationalist.
A single gathering can only accomplish so much on its own. It is the deepening of a perspective, an approach, a sense of solidarity that is our long-term goal in the region. This sense of solidarity was movingly captured at the end of the conference when the whole room sang together, even though we managed at best to remember just the chorus:
“Solidarity Forever, Solidarity Forever, Solidarity Forever, for the union makes us strong”
Kevin Lin is an activist and researcher of Chinese labour movement, and the China Program Officer at International Labor Rights Forum. He is a contributor to Labour Notes, Jacobin, New Politics, New Labor Forum and open Democracy