Organising to meet multinational challenge in Asia Pacific commerce Documents

By Tavip Saepul of ASPEK, with Theerawut Jantakeelee and Surapol Glinkeisorn of the Tesco Lotus Workers Union, Thailand, UNI, 15 October 2004

Commerce unions in Asia Pacific are to work closer together to deal with the growing domination of their industry by giant multinational retailers. Delegates to the UNI-Asia Pacific Commerce conference in Cebu, Philippines agreed an action plan to step up their organising efforts &8212; with a special focus on the multinationals.

Membership is the lifeblood of trade unions, said Joseph Chua of Singapore.

Regional Secretary Christopher Ng's message to Cebu was organise, organise and organise.

Delegates from across the region reported on the fall out from the arrival of the majors—including job losses, more part time and insecure work, and cost cutting among existing retailers.

UNI-Asia Pacific is to challenge the World Trade Organisation over commerce—the rights of workers and the interests of small producer-retailers should not be sacrificed in the abstract name of liberalisation and global competition, agreed delegates.

Unions are to network on organising and union development and exchange information on the activities of the multinationals.

UNI-Asia Pacific Commerce gave backing to one of Asia's youngest unions and Thailand's first commerce union—the 1,000 strong Tesco Lotus Workers Union—and demanded the UK-based company respects union rights.

Saepul Tavip—who is general secretary of another young Asian union, ASPEK of Indonesia—moved the solidarity motion.

UNI helped found and grow ASPEK with backing from the SDA of Australia and the five-year-old union now has more than 100,000 members in a number of UNI sectors.

UNI-Asia Pacific is currently also growing a commerce union in Nepal and helping to expand the Mongolian commerce workers union.

All the big global retailers are now in the Asia Pacific region, a briefing paper for delegates warned.

These companies are bringing to our region new ways of doing business and new forms of behaviour, said Regional Commerce President Ian Blandthorn of Australia.

Often they are anti-union and anti-worker in their approach. This presents us with fundamental challenges.

The retail giants are also anti society—declared the conference— reshaping tastes and patterns of consumption and undermining community solidarity and neighbourhoods.

Jobs are being created by the multinationals but cultures are being destroyed, said Takaaki Sakurada, President of JSD Japan.

Delays in our organising efforts allow these giant employers to behave in a tyrannical manner.

The biggest retailer of all—Wal-Mart—is buying its way into the Japanese market through Seiyu (which is already unionised) and is expanding its base in China.

Wal-Mart may take a controlling stake in Seiyu. JSD General Secretary Takaaki Tsutsui asked whether it would reject dialogue with unions and adopt the American style of management or adopt the Japanese model with more moderate industrial relations?

He told delegates of his union's solidarity with the UFCW in the USA whose members in California were on strike for 139 days to defend health benefits and other conditions in Wal-Mart rivals cutting their cost base to keep pace with the market leader.

Across the Asia Pacific region the Wal-Mart effect is already being felt— defined by the briefing paper as excessive outsourcing, lean retailing, tough negotiations with suppliers, a regime of continuous cost cutting and a non-unionised approach to human resources management.

Organising efforts are not just planned in the multinationals—the majority of commerce workers across the region remain unorganised, many working in very small retailers.

In Japan a fifth of commerce workers are unionised and Japanese unions are launching new drives to recruit part time workers and those working for subsidiary companies.

I am worried that we only take up measures against the giant companies and ignore what is at our feet, said Takaaki Sakurada. Organising and recruitment is fundamental to our ability to expand and represent our workers in commerce.

The regional action plan calls for more social dialogue and collective bargaining with employers of all sizes—it's what our members expect us to do, said Regional President Joe de Bruyn.

UNI is to seek more global agreements with multinationals to ensure they observe labour rights and behave as good corporate citizens in Asia Pacific and elsewhere.

The region also wants more skills development to meet the challenges of new and emerging technologies. Go to the conferences' homepage