Telecom sector conference

Union Network International (UNI), Asian and Pacific Regional Organisation, Hiroshima, 16-–18 October 2000


An overview of telecoms developments in the Asian and Pacific Region reveals a complexity of public and private operators functioning within a wide range of developmental, technical, and regulatory contexts. Industry development across the region is characterised by the rapid pace of growth and change, the large number of participants, and wide variations between the developed and less developed countries of the region. As in other regions, telecom is dominated by the involvement of the major multinationals. However, the approach taken by these large companies tends to be determined by the national context, and the degree to which individual governments are prepared to make special concessions towards them, in order to encourage secure investment for telecommunications development. More often the needs of the MNCs are being met through the agreements reached with the World Trade Organisation as the primary body overseeing the process of economic globalisation.

It has been acknowledged by numerous commentators during the past decade that the Telecommunications Sector is one of the main drivers of industrial development, as it can be recognised that development of infrastructure in this sector is an essential precursor to economic liberalisation and movement into the global economy. This is especially true in Asia-Pacific and it is as much a feature of industrialised countries as it is in the developing countries of this region. For the countries of developing Asia-Pacific with low teledensity, the need to establish telecommunications infrastructure that will satisfy the needs of industry for high quality, high speed data and other value-added services must be balanced with national development objectives and the need to provide basic telephone services to all, particularly in rural areas. For industrialised nations the priority is to respond to consumer demands for constantly upgraded services and facilities arising from the industrial and business sectors as well as from the general public. In both cases, the need exists for investment capital that will provide the infrastructure that developments in the telecommunications and IT sectors require.

The drive for infrastructure investment has, to a large extent, moved the policies of governments towards the full liberalisation of the telecoms sector. This drive has been given its primary direction in recent years by the involvement of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in determining agreements from member countries that detail the process of deregulation of telecommunications as part of a strategy towards economic globalisation. Much criticism has been directed at these agreements which tend to focus on the interests of business for free competition, while failing to convincingly address the implications of telecommunications deregulation on the provision and costs of basic services, especially for rural consumers.

Regulatory protocols determined in WTO negotiations have proved problematic in a number of settings and agreements to establish independent regulatory bodies have often failed to take account of community needs. This tends to suggest that the policy underlying their establishment has often been unduly influenced by the interest of business and the telcos that will be subject to their regulation in any given national context. Durable machinery for the protection of consumers outside the business-industry-government loop is not convincingly present. This often leads to a situation where the incumbent operator, particularly in the case of a state-owned or privatised state enterprise which continues to hold the responsibility to provide universal service, is handicapped in relation to newcomers in the competition for high-profit services, by regulatory regimes that lean too far towards the interests of foreign capital investors.

The question of regulatory regimes that are independent while remaining responsive to the needs of ordinary consumers and the goal of universal service, inevitably leads to the issues associated with access to the advanced technological applications associated with the Internet. For developing countries with low teledensity the potential is high for a future further disadvantaged by poor access to timely information which can cement in place the current structural inequalities existing between the IT haves and have-nots. Access to IT, the internet and all of the possible implications of that for developing countries is predicated upon the existence of the necessary telecommunications infrastructure. Increasingly, national development goals are associated with the need to establish not only a population with high levels of functional literacy in the national language and at least one other, but also a technologically literate population. The wholesale deregulation and privatisation of the telecom sector will not ensure that any such goals can be achieved unless there is representation of the interests of workers and consumers in the national policy planning for the telecoms sector.

Trade unions in the Telecom Sector are positioned to take advantage of their knowledge of the industry for the purpose of lobbying government to include the interests of labour and consumers in their policies for industry regulation, particularly in relation to negotiations with international financial institutions, the WTO, and other regional policy-making bodies such as APEC, ASEAN etc.

Across the region there are clear similarities in the employment practises that are prevalent in the industry. Telecoms employment is characterised by outsourcing of as many functions as possible, contract and other forms of contingent employment. Casualisation is a problem in all parts of the region as employers demand the flexibility of casuals for work in traffic-based functions and services. The vast proliferation of employers in the industry does not reflect telecoms as a major employer, however. Many new services are offered requiring little human intervention, but sophisticated technology which is now universally available.

Organisation rates in new enterprises are low or non-existent, and unions in traditional companies are struggling to maintain their memberships in the face of contracting, casualisation, downsizing, and other restructuring intended to meet the market in the competitive environment of deregulated telecommunications. Reorganisation of the telecoms industry and the changing concept of Core Business has created a new phenomenon which is rapidly becoming an entrenched part of the employment scene. Call Centres are undertaking much of the business that has previously been the task of telcos as well as banks, insurance companies, financial services companies, and all kinds of direct sales agencies and customer services facilities. Asia-Pacific is becoming an attractive region for Call Centres to establish as a number of countries can offer relatively well-educated, multi-lingual workers in tight job markets who are prepared to perform the repetitive work that is required. Rates of pay are relatively lower than those payable in the home countries of the companies whose services they perform—eg. operators at a Call Centre in Delhi answer for British Airways accounting section.

In addition to the more obviously telecom-oriented work of the call centres, cable laying and installation of customer premises equipment etc., there are many people in employment in other sectors whose jobs rely for their existence on the convergence of telecommunications and information technology and other disciplines such as journalism and design. The multi-media sector, which includes many new areas of work where unions have penetrated very little if at all, is one example of a sector where unions must expand their organising activities if they are to protect their membership and retain/regain their relevance in the future. Co-ordinated campaigns of union publicity and organisation are urgently needed, as are innovative strategies to attract new younger workers in emerging sectors.

Sectoral Organisation

The former Communications International in 1997 laid the groundwork for the establishment of industry-based sector organisations within the International and in January 1999, the first meeting of the Asia-Pacific Telecom Sector was conducted in Tokyo, Japan. The purpose of the sector organisation's establishment is to focus policy initiatives on the specific industry issues that challenge the workers and trade unions, and to determine ways to address them that meet the needs of the developed trade unions of Asia-Pacific, as well as the needs of developing trade unions in the region. With the inauguration of Union Network International these structures have been integrated as a formal part of the new UNI organisation and have been augmented by the establishment also of discrete Inter-professional sectors—Women, Youth, Professional and Managerial Staff—with which industry sectors such as Telecom can interact to pursue policy objectives.

To a great extent, UNI-Apro Telecom has been able to continue some of the activities that were being undertaken in the former Communications International while working to establish policy that will take the Telecoms Sector strongly into the future. The reorganisation will allow us to also expand and improve the quality of the support for UNI affiliates with more innovative approaches. UNI-Apro has begun this with a plan to create national liaison councils which bring all of the affiliates in any country together in a co-operative body which will be prepared to undertake responsibility for projects but also will enable the sharing of expertise and experience between affiliates. Where possible and appropriate, affiliates liaison councils have been provided with equipment and facilities to expand their administrative capacities and improve communications. This is designed to assist in improving the abilities and performance of least developed unions as well as to encourage cross-sectoral relationships that will contribute to the unity and stability of UNI as an organisation.

The majority of Telecom affiliates have begun their existence in the public sector and in many cases, particularly in countries where trade union rights are not fully extended to the public sector, this has limited the scope of their operations in such areas as collective bargaining, organising, and the regular collection of union dues. It is already apparent in some of the countries where liaison councils have been established, that public sector-based unions are benefitting from this approach through exposure to the more regulated administration of trade unions in the private sector. One of a number of successful examples, the UNI Bangladesh Liaison Council (UNI-BLC) has been assisted with computers and has arranged its own internet connection from which all of the affiliates can set up e-mail addresses, train officials, members and their children in the use of computers and e-mail etc. The computers are also being utilised to offer English language tuition. The UNI-BLC office is efficiently maintained in space made available in co-operation with the Bangladesh Bank Karmachari Federation and is becoming an important focus for affiliates in Dhaka.

Trade Union Development

The process of undertaking Trade Union development activities in the Telecom Sector has generally rested on the education and training programs that were the foundation of Communications International activities for affiliates in the Asia-Pacific Region. These programs have continued but with some reorganisation and for the Telecom Sector we have been able to take advantage of regional and sub-regional programs conducted by UNI-Apro for Trainers' Training and Organising Skills Training. This approach has been able to broaden the experience and exposure of union officials to the operations of unions in other countries and other industry sectors, as well as to strengthen the ability of affiliates to undertake their own training programs and conduct their own organising campaigns with a greater expectation of success. In some national projects advantage has been taken of inter-union relationships to encourage unions to link together in a kind of unofficial mentor scheme. This has been particularly effective in the relations that have developed in Malaysia between the telecom unions which have been strengthened in their national negotiations by the maintenance of close support and contact between them. Efforts by the National Union of Telecom Employees (NUTE) of Peninsula Malaysia to support the initiatives for development of the Sarawak-based Union of Telecom Employees (UTES) have in turn seen assistance of UTES focused on the Sabah Union of Telecom Employees (SUTE) to improve administration and communications as well as to help them to gain confidence in conducting their own membership training programs. UTES has recently been recognised by the Malaysian Ministry of Labour as a 'best practice' example of trade union organisation and administration and has expressed gratitude to the International and NUTE for assisting the union to achieve this exemplary level of organisational competence.

Telecom Missions

In order to assist unions to gain a full understanding of the telecommunications industry environment, two initiatives have been followed that focus on the national industry context. Officers of the UNI-Apro Telecom Sector Committee along with the Sector Director have programmed a series of exploratory visits (Telecom Missions) to different countries where specific problems are being confronted by the local unions. This series of Missions began in December 1999 with a Mission to Fiji where the state-owned corporation, Fiji Telecom Ltd. has been set up for privatisation. Highly successful, the three-day Mission was able to conclude meetings with senior Government officials and management and assist the Unions to obtain undertakings for ongoing consultation and negotiations to conclude a Collective Agreement reflecting all current conditions of employment prior to the sale of shares. Undertakings were also obtained for the Unions to be included in any future policy discussions that would determine overall industry development. Not only addressing union-management relations issues, the Mission also made recommendations in respect of the form of union organisation that will serve as a 'best model' for the consideration of the Unions and their future operations within Fiji Telecoms, as well as the industry in general as it is developed in Fiji. A second Mission was undertaken in April 2000 in Taiwan to assist the Chinese Telecommunication Workers Union (CTWU) in responding to the changes taking place in Chunghwa Telecom as it is prepared for full deregulation of the telecoms sector there. This Mission also conducted a series of meetings with newly appointed Government officials as well as company and consumers representatives. A full report has been published for the assistance of the CTWU in addressing the issues associated with the changes taking place. During November the third Mission will be taken to Korea to examine the situation of Korea Telecom reorganisation and the developments in the Telecom Sector and labour relations environment there.

Industry Symposiums

While the Telecom Missions are designed to examine specific situations identified jointly with the union and detailed in predetermined agreed Terms of Reference, the other initiative being developed as a regular activity in the Sector is to conduct national and sub-regional Telecoms industry symposiums. The practise thus far has been to conduct such symposiums with both affiliated and unaffiliated Telecoms Unions in attendance. This strategy has a threefold objective;

1. to provide an opportunity for the leadership of the organised Trade Unions to be exposed to a more detailed national overview of the industry focusing on policy and practise both in the public and private sectors, the regulatory framework, the union organisation levels, the prevailing industrial relations practises, technology and services, etc.;

2. to create alliances between the trade unions in the sector for exchanging information, share expertise and knowledge, establish mentoring relationships, and promote an industry-level organisation for the purpose of raising the profile and credibility of the trade unions in industry forums and government policy-making bodies;

3. to promote the International as a pluralist organisation which is properly positioned to provide information, development assistance, and solidarity support to unions through affiliation.

National Symposiums have been conducted in Nepal, India and Malaysia, the latter with the support of the Council of Post and Telecoms Unions of Malaysia (COPTUM) and later this year will be conducted in Sri Lanka and the Philippines. In the same way, unions in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan met together in Bangalore in 1998 to conduct a Sub-regional overview of the developments in the Telecom sector in South Asia. Further such programs will be held progressively throughout the region to upgrade the professionalism and industry knowledge of the unions.

The extremely fast pace of change in telecommunications has placed greater demands on trade unions than ever before. It is crucial that unions come to terms with the technological advancements being made by the employers in order that they can adopt a proactive role in addressing the changes as they may impact on workers in the industry. Not only is it necessary that unions have a thorough understanding of the regulatory and legal environment of telecommunications and labour relations in their national context, but also that they take advantage of the opportunities to utilise the information about the employer's enterprise that is available to them in the workplace. Analysis of technological information can enable unions to determine possible future outcomes and effects on employment, and to form ways to address these in planned strategies. Unions must be able to present themselves as competent and well-informed, properly prepared and able to discuss the implications of technological and workplace changes on equal terms with employers. To do this it is necessary not only to expose union officers to contacts with their overseas and local colleagues but also to ensure that ordinary members are properly trained. Well-defined lines of communication must be established within the union's organisation to ensure that critical information from various sources can be properly utilised.

Specialised Development Programs

Where it is possible to acquire funding support from partner organisations to conduct advanced programs of specialised development training, UNI has been able to design programs in addition to the national symposiums, that specifically address the needs of unions in a particular context. The program in the Philippines conducted with communications affiliates through the former C.I. will conclude this year with a series of activities that will address needs determined in special workshops of affiliates in late 1998. For various reasons these programs were suspended in 1999 during the transitional period before the inauguration of UNI but UNI Swedish affiliate SEKO has obtained agreement for the remaining programs to be conducted this year. The programs' content will address specific local organising strategies in Organisers' Training Workshops, and prepare unions to undertake some of their own legal work, especially with regard to minor disputes, personal grievances, and collective bargaining in Paralegal Training Workshops. These activities will augment the proposed National Symposium on Developments in the Telecommunications Industry in the Philippines and will utilise local training personnel as well as trained individuals from UNI affiliates within the Telecom Sector as well as other industry sectors under the oversight of the UNI-Philippines Liaison Council (UNI-PLC).

Women and Youth

Until 1999 organising and training of women trade unionists was fully integrated into the programs for Telecom affiliates and additionally, higher level annual sub-regional prgrams were conducted with the purpose of improving the knowledge and professionalism of women in positions of responsibility in the trade unions. This approach was considered important as the industry demographic in telecommunications was beginning to shift to show increasing numbers of women in employment in the sector. The focus of these programs has been to address specific industrial issues of significance to women, while improving their capacity to arrive at strategies that will see the unions respond to the needs of women workers through the process of collective bargaining, and also in their organisational structures. The responsibility for work specifically for women has now been shifted to its own department and most initiatives for women will be under the umbrella of the Global Equality Project which has been developed and operated by the former FIET. This project is enlarged and will continue to expand the development activities for women in UNI. It is intended that UNI-Apro Telecom will work closely with Sis. Alice Chang UNI-Apro Director for Women and Youth to ensure that there is continuation of the industry-specific programs for women as well as introducing some youth activities into the work of the sector.


Organising rates within the Telecom Sector of Asia-Pacific reflect the same problems as exist in most other regions, and this remains a problem that unions are reluctant to grapple with. Economic globalisation and the liberalisation of labour laws in some countries, and traditional forms of trade union organisation in others, have created an overall trend towards enterprise-based trade unionism. In the liberalising telecom industry with its vast proliferation of new companies, enterprise trade unions may be very small—the example of the Philippines where enterprise unionism has been the preferred approach under the prevailing labour legislation, shows many small unions of fewer than 200 members. These organisations are very vulnerable to union-busting attacks from employers, as well as being financially vulnerable when they must resort to the law in this very litigious environment. External organising assistance to workers in unorganised telecom enterprises has been co-ordinated with assistance from the International, by UNI affiliate Buklod Manggagawa sa RCPI-NFL (BMRCPI) but this has been set back somewhat by the pressures on that union for its own survival in a company (Bayan Telecommunications Ltd.) that is undergoing major changes.

Employment practises that lean towards a majority of workers who are employed on some kind of contingent employment practise—casual work, short-term contracts, part-time employment, agency hiring etc.—create major difficulties for organising by trade unions. Additionally, it is not uncommon for unions to take an adversarial position towards contingent employees on the grounds that they are occupying jobs that should be the preserve of regular workers. Unfortunately the lack of logic in this is self-defeating but is often embedded in the union's constitution which limits membership to regular employees. Forced redundancies in the guise of early retirement programs are a common tactic used by employers to remove regular workers and replace them with contingent employees who have limited rights and fewer benefits. UNI has produced the first version of an organising manual as back-up to programs of organiser training which provides guidelines for unions who are unfamiliar with the process of designing and conducting an organising campaign. This material can be adapted to suit local conditions and the promotion of organising as a basic trade union activity, and promotion of establishing an organising culture within affiliates structures is a priority for UNI-Apro Telecom.

Experience in Indonesia has shown that organising can be successful even in an environment of political and economic instability. Following the support of UNI-Apro to organise banking workers and set up the Indonesian Finance Sector Union (ASPEK), the group of dedicated organisers working with ASPEK General Secretary Saepul Tavip has made contacts with activists in both the Postal and Telecom sectors to begin the work required to sign up workers and register unions. This work is progressing well and at the time of writing a union has been registered to cover workers in xxxxx xxxxxx and organising is ongoing in other telecoms enterprises. The Indonesian experience should be an example to all unions that are discouraged by the challenges that organising can present. UNI-Apro telecom will be continuing to focus on organising as an urgent priority throughout the region as its programs and activities are expanded.

Trade Union Rights, Law, and Multinationals

It is unfortunate but true that Asia-Pacific continues to be identified as a region with a high level of trade union rights abuses. The process of liberalisation that empowers the multinationals is being pursued at the continued expense of workers rights and governments are reluctant to offer full freedoms to workers and their trade unions in many countries to avoid discouraging potential corporate investment. The disruption of the Seattle meetings of the WTO served to highlight the plight of workers and ordinary citizens sacrificed in the race towards economic globalisation and subsequently the meetings to establish the United Nations Global Compact have highlighted issues of corporate and government responsibility in the nine principles of the Global Compact that cover human rights, labour standards and the environment. This document and the machinery being put in place to encourage its wider acceptance and operation will provide a further method to support UNI attempts to push companies towards more responsible corporate citizenship.

Special efforts are often required to overcome cultural differences when major companies export their management practises and approaches into foreign contexts. In the case of Sri Lanka Telecom where NTT of Japan holds a management contract, much effort has been made both by the All NTT Workers Union (NWJ, formerly Zendentsu) and by UNI-Apro Executive Secretary, Basil de Silva to orient the parties towards a better mutual understanding, and mutually acceptable industrial relations model which it is hoped will carry them towards the goal of negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreements for all of the workers in Sri Lanka Telecom. It is expected that a full report on this experience will be able to assist the UNI-Apro Telecom Committee to establish some guidelines for dealing with further such situations. Asian-Pacific based multinational corporations are presently engaged in a vigorous entry to newly-opened markets within the region. As they expand and diversify their business into other countries, and it is necessary for UNI-Apro Telecom to be properly positioned to provide constructive assistance to unions where necessary to facilitate the establishment of positive industrial relationships. As some of these companies are organised in their country of origin, it is of course crucial that throughout the process of establishing a mutually acceptable industrial relations framework between local unions and new entrant multinationals, that there is no detriment or disruption to the existing relations between the home country union and the company concerned. UNI-Apro Telecom will continue efforts to engage multinationals in the region through initiatives such as the establishment of Regional Works Councils, the promotion of the Multinationals Code of Practise, and the OECD Guidelines, in conjunction with efforts to establish a regional labour relations profile in the telecommunications industry that demonstrates a commitment to workers rights and social responsibility.

Government commitment to legislating for full trade union rights is often lacking and even where rights exist under the law, the commitment to properly operate these is lacking. The state of the labour relations environment in Korea continues to be oppressive towards trade unions in spite of a legal framework that now offers rights in accordance with ILO principles. During recent years the Korea Telecom Trade Union has been under almost constant government pressure to oppose their expectation to exercise fully those rights. Arrests of the union's leadership have caused severe disruption of the KTTU ability to function and repeated efforts to support the Union's position have been made to the relevant authorities, both in writing and in person by regional and world officials of the former C.I. and also by UNI. While the pressure is presently off KTTU major problems still exist for trade unions in Korea where, at the time of writing, President Lee Yong-Deuk of UNI finance sector affiliate KFIU, remains under arrest in Seoul.

Relations with International Institutions

Only since the establishment of the UNI-Telecom Sector has there been a co-ordinated effort to establish contacts and ongoing dialogue with external policy-making agencies within the Asia-Pacific Region. Contacts have been made and meetings held with representatives of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity during the past 12 months. At this stage these contacts are informal only but efforts are being made to engage in more substantive relations. As part of a drive to secure its sphere of influence in the face of the telecommunications agreements being negotiated through the WTO which impinge on its traditional role, the ITU is expanding its involvements to encompass consumers interests. The ITU correctly points out that consumer interests and issues associated with affordable universal access to telecommunications services which it correctly argues are overlooked in the current processes of establishing independent regulatory authorities that reflect primarily the interests of service providers and governments. UNI-Apro Telecom has been invited to take part in the second symposium conducted by the ITU in this region to examine the impacts on consumers, particularly domestic and rural, of deregulation in the telecoms sector. While this is a small progress for UNI, it is a major change of focus for the ITU which has expressed the need to include a trade union perspective as the issues of consumers are recognised as being very close to the interests of workers in telecoms.

The primary obstacles to progress in securing a place in any regional discussion of industry policy issues is the perception of the trade union movement by the major participants in industry forums. Most such forums are dominated by the multinational corporations and more influential regional telecom carriers and service providers, and in the case of the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity, have very high costs attached to membership and to attendance at special meetings and conferences. UNI-Apro Telecom will continue to pursue the aim of inserting itself into the policy-making discussions at these forums. The task of the UNI-Apro Telecom Committee will be to determine creative initiatives for accessing these bodies and ensuring that a labour-oriented perspective can be included.

While the WTO is arguably the singular most influential body in the push for full liberalisation of the telecoms sector in Asia-Pacific (20 countries have negotiated agreements for deregulating their telecom industries), it is extremely reluctant to allow any involvement by non-governmental organisations including trade unions or the International Trade Secretariats. The primary access for unions to influence the negotiations of their government with the WTO is through the process of lobbying their national government bodies involved in such negotiations. UNI-Apro Telecom Committee has an ongoing discussion regarding the various regional economic forums and of these APEC has been the focus of some work in the labour movement. However because of limited resources it is necessary to carefully determine the goals and objectives to be achieved, as well as assessing the degree of influence that any given organisation has, before any decision is made to attempt to make our own input. Assistance will be sought as necessary from UNI Telecom (HQ) for access to industry policy-making wherever possible.


The following application for affiliation have been received since the UNI World Executive Board Meeting in July 2000:

United Trade Union of Mongolia Telecom 464 members

A large number of UNI Asia-Pacific affiliates are in arrears of payment for their affiliation fees. At its July meeting the UNI World Executive Board determined a procedure to disaffiliate unions that have not paid affiliation fees or have failed to reply to correspondence for a number of years. It is hoped that unions will give more attention to ensuring that the affiliation fees are paid promptly and to contact UNI-Apro should a problem exist that prevents payment at the usual time or in the usual amount.


UNI-Apro Telecom is now coming to grips with the task of developing ongoing and sustainable projects that will address the needs of affiliates in the Asia-Pacific Region. The success of any UNI-Apro initiatives lies in the strength of affiliates to ensure that the benefits of any activities are passed on to other union members to strengthen affiliates organisations. Efforts must be made to establish innovative strategies for having our voice heard more effectively in the discussions relating to telecommunications policy in international forums. If we are to be able to protect our members we must continue to organise across the entire breadth of the telecommunications sector, we must address the challenge of organising workers in contingent employment, and we must address the challenges of expanding trade unionism in the network economy.