‘A union foothold in the export processing zones’

ICFTU Online, 10 September 2003

Brussels, 10 September 2003 (ICFTU Online): On the eve of the opening of the WTO Conference in Cancun, the ICFTU is publishing a 12 page briefing with interviews on the headlong rush toward ever-lower prices which is sapping the fundamental rights of workers. The briefing focuses on Philippine export processing zones (EPZs), which account for 80% of the total export trade of that country. On the one hand investors in EPZs are offered financial incentives, but on the other there are low wages, punishing working hours and a miserable life for workers, most of whom are women.

Within the fiercely anti-union EPZ stronghold, in existence since the early 1990s, the Filipino trade union confederation, the TUCP and its main affiliated unions have struggled on a daily basis to secure the initial foothold they have now established to defend workers' rights. In this report, union activists talk about their everyday battle to build up solidarity and to counter employers' threats of redundancy.

But the bitter global competition on labour costs is increasing the risk of relocation to China, where wages are three times lower still than in the Philippines. This is making the unions' job even harder. The Korean electronics firm Keyrin, which is one of the companies criticised in this report, has made it company policy to discipline all members of staff drastically in order to maximise production … and what's more, Keyrin's objective is to move most of its operations to China.

The Rosario town council had more money when the area was still a paddy field. The EPZ has mostly made things worse and brought insecurity, traffic congestion, air pollution and noise pollution, according to an engineer working for the town council who prefers to remain anonymous. That statement lends credence to the unions' serious misgivings as to the benefits that EPZs have brought in terms of development for the countries that host them.

The unrestricted opening up of markets, without the slightest concern for social or environmental considerations, is exacerbating the poverty and exploitation of millions of workers, and this is particularly clear in the export processing zones, stresses Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the ICFTU, who is heading up a 150-strong union delegation in Cancun that is urging the WTO member states to take full account of the social dimension of economic globalisation.