The Asia-Pacific Region and the role of the ACTU. Martin Ferguson President, ACTU.

I Introduction


First of all I want to congratulate the initiative of the sponsoring unions and the International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR).


This conference on union rights is extremely important as unions have been under attack throughout our region. As an established union movement, in an industrialised country, it is important that we play a key role in supporting workers and their unions in the newly industrialising economies in this region, and throughout the world. It is a tribute to the six national unions who put this conference on and to the work of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights. The admission of the ICTUR to a special list of Non-Governmental organisations (NGO’s) at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in March this year is a fitting reward to John Handy and others who have worked hard on this in Europe. I was also pleased to open the inaugural Australian meeting of the ICTUR in October. The ICTUR office in Sydney provides a base for the region. I congratulate all concerned and promise committed support from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) for this timely initiative.

II The Asia-Pacific Region

In my address today I want to focus on the Asia-Pacific Region and the role of the ACTU.


In terms of economic growth, it is an exciting decade for Australia as our economy builds on its already substantial integration into the Asia-Pack region. The Asia Pacific is the fastest growing economic region in the world and will continue to be so through to the 21st century.


It has quite clearly been the engine of the world’s economic growth in the last decade.


Just take the economies of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Republic of Korea alone, you have a market of 330 million people with a combined GDP of $US700 million – which is two and a half times bigger than Australia’s and is predicted to grow by 7% this year and the next.


Just a simple look at Australia’s trade figures shows how much has changed in the past two decades with respect to our economic relationship with this region. In 1971/72 Australia exported 5.3% of its total exports to this group. In 1991/92 the total share had risen to 17%. Likewise, in terms of imports 2.5% of total imports came from this group in 1971/72 whilst in 1991/92 it has grown to 11 %.


Importantly for Australia, we have maintained a positive trade balance with the region over this period of rapid expansion. It is expected that the rapidly growing economies of the region will continue to demand more Australian exports, including raw materials, elaborately transferred manufacturing (ETM’s) and services, whilst at the same time pursuing export markets of their own.


Whilst the economic growth of the region is an exciting prospect it is important for unionists to ask – what is its purpose? After all, opening up trade and removing international impediments to the flow of commerce is only beneficial if it raises living standards of working men and women. As noted by the ICFTU in reference to the Havana Charter of 1948:


‘The ‘trickle down’ theory of trade policy does not work. There are no automatic mechanisms by which increased exports lead to improved wages and conditions …


Increased exports do provide the resources for improvements but only trade unions through collective bargaining or governments through adequately enforced labour laws can ensure that increased trade does really lead to higher standards of living.”


This is as true a statement today as it was in the early years of the post World War II period. Whilst the Australian union movement actively assists companies in developing competitive export-orientated industries we are doing so to ensure that the benefits are shared with the Australian workforce. Likewise the Australian union movement supports the efforts by our union counterparts in the region to ensure that the benefits of economic and trade expansion accrue to working people.


However, the union movement in the Asia-Pack region has a long way to go. As Enzo Friso, the General Secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) has pointed out at the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions-Asia Pacific Regional Organisation (ICFTU-APRO) Economic Conference in Phuket in June this year , economic and political forces are stacked against the regions’ labour movement. He noted:


With one third of the total population of the South and East Asian region, 1.3 billion people. surviving in conditions of severe poverty, the trade union movement of your region faces some of the biggest and most difficult problems of the world. Raising living standards and creating jobs, are clearly the highest priority for your nations and especially for the trade unions. However in your region, more than any other, various political forces have used the necessity of development to try to justify continued authoritarianism and the restriction of trade union and other human rights. As trade unionists we have to demonstrate by our arguments and our actions that democracy need not, indeed cannot wait, for development, but rather is a pre-requisite for sustained and successful economic and social progress, and political stability.”


There are numerous social developments accompanying the economic and demographic growth of the region. These developments present a challenge to unions to show that they are a legitimate part of each nations’ institutional framework.


For example, the urbanisation of the region is accelerating. At least double the number of people live in cities than twenty years ago.


Levels of illiteracy still exceed 50% in the most populous countries of Asia but have fallen to much lower levels in other countries.


Women represent a large and growing share of the non-agricultural labour force and of trade union membership in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) States.


The agricultural labour surplus is fast declining and employment is not being created fast enough beyond agriculture to absorb displaced workers. Labour mobility across the region is becoming important as I is all over the world. These changes in the population of the region provide numerous challenges to unions that do not just relate to balance of trade figures.

III What Should The Australian Union Movement Be Doing In The Region?

The ACTU, in order to strengthen its ties with the region has formulated an ‘Asia Strategy’ through its International Committee. The ACTU’s Asia Strategy is guided by four tasks:



  • to strengthen relations with the trade union movement in the Asia region;




  • to participate in enhancing Australia’s social and economic integration in the region;




  • to encourage affiliates to participate on industry speck regional initiatives; and




  • to encourage the development of independent and representative trade unions in the region.



I first want to deal with our regional links in the Asian region.


I want to say at the outset that the ACTU recognises the great diversity amongst nations in the Asia-Pacific.


The ACTU respects each nations’ different culture, tradition, history and values.


There is no way that the ACTU would advocate imposing our Australian practices or cultural traditions on to nations in the region.


However having said that, the ACTU is part of the international workers’ movement and is actively engaged in the regions’ international trade union structures such as the ICFTU and the South Pacific Oceanic Council of Trade Unions (SPOCTU). We have a commitment to these bodies to help ensure that workers rights are protected in the region.


The ACTU supports the ICFTU’s work for the recognition of free independent trade unions. This is vitally important in a world where infringement of trade union and human rights is commonplace. I note the proposal by the ICFTU for a ‘social clause’ to ensure that there is an established standard of workers rights in trade agreements (such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) Agreement). 1 know that this has caused some fear amongst ASEAN labour ministers who are afraid that a social clause will impose the standards of the industrialised world on the industrialising nations. It is seen in ASEAN eyes as a means of protecting the richer countries, rather than the poor.


On the issue of the social clause, 1 want to make just two points.


First, the ACTU does not intend to simply support imposing developed country wages and conditions on developing country employers. This is not realistic nor is it likely to assist the workers in poorer countries. The process of economic development should ensure that living standards will rise provided that there are forces, such as free trade unions, to ensure equity, as well as efficiency, criteria are being met in growing economies.


Second, whilst the ACTU does not want to impose conditions on other countries we are a member of the international workers’ movement and have obligations to support the rights of workers to join unions and fight for improved labour standards. It is important to remember that labour standards in certain cases must be universal and cross national and cultural barriers.


Take occupational health and safety. The terrible tragedy of the Kader toy factory in Bangkok which burnt down earlier this year – killing and maiming hundreds of, mainly, women workers – reminds us how important safety standards are.


It makes us ask what are our priorities? Is development worth it at any cost?


Some standards must be internationally applied. Certain chemicals are dangerous if they are handled by workers in a developing or an industrialised country. Chemical X is dangerous if it is handled by a Thai, an Indonesian, a Samoan, a Fijian or an Australian worker.


This is what international standards and the need for a social clause is all about. S


Safety standards are not there to protect just Australian or American workers. They are there to protect all workers. That is why I think a social clause acceptable to all unions in the Asia-Pack region should be considered. We support discussion in a rational, consensual process on this matter so that it will provide benefits for workers in countries at all stages of economic development.


This should be raised in the context of the GATT (as has been done by the ICFTU) and should be considered in the Asian Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) group context.


As Enzo Friso has noted, the development of international labour standards linked to international trade is the best insurance policy against a return to protectionism. At present many argue against international trade because they say it allows foreign governments and transnationals to undertake exploitative practices in order to compete internationally. A social clause providing proper labour standards, would counter this argument. With a social clause, negotiated by unions in the region, there would not be this excuse for protectionism – essentially it should be linked to arguments for not just free but also fair trade with a fair go for developed and developing countries alike.


Defending and improving Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) standards is considered by most Australian workers as one of the most important services that our unions provide.


The Kader Toy factory in Bangkok highlights the importance of the development of occupational health and safety standards. If the Thai unions could impose those standards in Bangkok as we have done in Australia, then those workers’ lives would have been saved.


First rate delivery of these OHS services will continue to be a high priority in Australia but I believe this is a service we can appropriately export into our region.


Training, too is an important service in Australia. Skill enhancement, education and training is becoming increasingly important in the region and the unions’ have a key role to play in this.


Examples of where Australian unions are involved in the region include:



  • working with the Australian Trade Commission (AUSTRADE) to assess the role of the Australian trade union movement in actively promoting trade and investment linkages in Asia;




  • promoting links between unions working in the same company in this region to assess the degree to which those companies are complying with ILO standards (this has been done by unions in the food industry around the region);




  • running with the Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA), the ILO and the ICFTU as series of leadership courses for Asia-Pacific unionists;




  • training courses for the Malaysian Nurses Association;




  • workshops on conciliation and arbitration skills in the Solomon Islands;




  • training programs in Vietnam and the Philippines conducted by the Australian People for Health Education and Development Abroad (APHEDA) – the ACTU’s organisations, particularly those concerned with women workers.



In addition some of our unions are developing direct regional links.


For example, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) is involved in helping the Vietnamese building union train officials and delegates for the new, evolving mixed economy.


In the Pacific region our limited resources are concentrated largely in support of SPOCTU.


SPOCTU is a regional subset of the ICFTU to which we belong and, since SPOCTU’s creation in 1990, it has played an important and increasingly respected role in this region.


In July this year I and more than 80 other regional and international delegates – were due to go to Vanuatu for the triennial conference of SPOCTU, which represents national union groupings in 14 countries in the South Pacific.


Unfortunately, at the last minute, the Vanuatu government declared as ‘undersirables’ the SPOCTU Executive Officer, Rod Ellis and SPOCTU’s Education Officer, Raghwan.


No official explanation was given for declaring these two key union people based in Brisbane – undesirable people.


SPOCTU immediately cancelled the whole conference. It will reconvene in Brisbane in a few weeks time.


It not only hurt SPOCTU’s finances but it would also have been a significant loss for the local business community in Vanuatu.


This restriction on the free movement of the region’s citizens, and particularly the executive personnel of a legitimate non-governmental organisation has already been roundly condemned as totally unacceptable and intolerable.


SPOCTU has always sought to work in an open, free, democratic and consensual manner.


In recent times its key role has been to lobby the South Pacific Forum to seek equal ‘observer status’ with private sector employers at their meetings.


SPOCTU wants the South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Co-operation Agreement (SPARTECA) – administered by a sub-committee of the South Pacific Forum – to include a clause saying that island exporters receiving concessions from SPARTECA must recognise the unions representing their workers, and adopt acceptable industrial relations policies.


What SPOCTU is seeking with SPARTECA is part of a general strategy of the international workers’ movement.


On the Pacific, I would also like to make mention of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA).


The TCFUA has been involved with their counterparts in Fiji.


This is important as some of the worst employers in the region operate in this industry. The Cook Islands footwear and textile industry recently suffered a major blow when an Australian investor shut down and moved to Fiji’s tax free zone because of its cheaper labour force.


In the Cook Islands the investor was paying $2.50 an hour to textile workers, in Fiji this was 60 cents an hour and a 12 year tax holiday. The Fiji Textile and Allied Workers union was established in March 1992 and now has 700 members in three factories. Support from the Australian TCF union is crucial to assist those workers in the Pacific.


This episode also answers those claims by ASEAN labour ministers that labour standards (envisaged in a social clause) are a protective device from unions in rich countries. Labour standards are necessary so workers in poor countries are not played off against one another by unscrupulous employers from rich countries.


Another means of assistance is through technical co-operation. Already we are talking with the ILO about different ways our people can upgrade health and safety standards by supporting ILO OHS technical co-operation programs in this region.


At the recent ILO Conference important decisions were taken on developing an international Convention on the Prevention of Industrial Accidents.


The committee developing the Convention was chaired by a top Indonesian government official, with the deputy chair coming from the Australian union movement.


After the conference the ACTU was approached informally by the Indonesians to see if we would send one of our OHS people to work with the Indonesian Department of Labour’s people to further develop this important question for their workers.


The trade union movement considers our relationship with Indonesia as a priority issue in Asia.


Australian unions played a special role in the struggle by the Indonesian Independence Movement.


Our wharfies are lauded in the history books of the Indonesian people.


They, quite correctly, took direct action after World War II against the Dutch who were trying to hold back the tide of history, by holding on to Indonesia as a colony.


And of course we have been prepared to be critical of Indonesia.


As a union leader I am vitally concerned about continuing reports of the violation of trade union rights in that country.


When Indonesian officials visit Australia – and pay a courtesy call on the ACTU – I have questioned them about these reports.


And I must say that I am not always completely satisfied with the answers I get.


However, I believe that as a friendly near neighbour of Indonesia, Australians must be prepared to make honest and constructive comments – based on real facts.


As part of this effort to better understand our populous neighbour I have agreed to an invitation to join the Minister for Industrial Relations, Laurie Brereton, in a tri-partite mission to Indonesia – which will go in a few weeks time.


I also plan to discuss the social clause with Indonesian government officials because Indonesia has an important role to play in both APEC and ASEAN.


I believe this mission will be an important vehicle to improve mutual understanding of industrial relations issues in Indonesia – and in Australia.


While I am in that country I will be speaking not just to the union people from SPSI – the major government-allied union movement which I understand is going through an important reform process at this moment.


But I will speak to other union activists who are seeking a more independent, faster paced reform for the local union organisations.


I do not say that we will always like everything that Indonesia does.


Nor do I think that Indonesia will always like how Australia behaves.


But it is important that we keep an open channel for constructive dialogue.


Especially as there is some evidence that the Indonesian labour movement is undergoing important developments; developments which I hope will give it the active strength and independence to represent their growing industrialised workforce.

IV Trade Union Rights And Human Rights

The work we do in the region reflects the importance of trade union rights as human rights.


The fight for union recognition, to organise, to bargaining and to receive better pay and conditions is part of the fight for democracy.


It is no accident that the workers of Eastern Europe who went into the streets demanding better conditions, were demanding democracy and freedom and the right to organise as well.


You cannot separate the demand for more food and better housing from the demand for the right to organise, the right to democracy.


This is an inherent part of economic development and a test of whether it is real development. This is the same in our region where workers in Korea and Taiwan are joining unions and striking for better conditions as the push for democracy has forced the old authoritarian regimes to listen more to the people.


The ACTU’s policy on human rights is based on the following fundamental assumptions:



  • the rights of working people are an integral dimension of human rights; and




  • human rights are essential if a society is to be able to boast that it is free, democratic and at peace with both its citizens and its neighbours.



The ACTU took an active role, as part of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, in the work leading up to last month’s United Nations Conference on Human Rights (UNCHR) in Vienna.


It was heartening to see that the ICFTU campaign to reaffirm trade union rights as a basic human rights paid off.


The Vienna statement included a specific reference to trade union rights in the final document of the Human Rights Conference.


Unfortunately we did not get everything we wanted.


No new mechanism for the improved monitoring of human and trade union rights was included in the final statement.


Nor was there any specific reference to the role of the ILO in the defence of human and trade union rights.


It is very clear that there is still much to do. Especially in the Asian region where human right are often labelled by regional governments as a Western concept used to check the progress of the newly industrialising world.


I think that our union movement and the Australian Labour government are obligated to continue to support and carefully work through these human rights questions.


The new Clinton Administration in the USA is also to be congratulated for raising human rights issues and taking a special interest in workers’ rights in Indonesia.


The ACTU – and our international counterpart the ICFTU – very much support the actions of the US Government in raising these issues with Indonesia.


But if we protest to our neighbours we must remember that human rights begin at home. Australia’s position in the international community depending on our treatment of our own people – especially indigenous Australians.


I am especially pleased with the role that the union movement played in supporting a decent outcome to Mabo.


The Aboriginal and Islander negotiators and the Prime Minister deserve congratulations for their efforts.


The Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Robert Tickner has recognised the efforts made by unions in the process. This is significant because Mabo and trade union are about human rights. It is important that union support justice for indigenous people in the same way that we seek economic justice for workers.


Let us hope that Mabo provides a basis for guaranteed human rights for indigenous Australians just as union guarantee human rights at work.




In summary, I would like to thank the organisers for this timely conference. There is a lot of work to do on union rights in this region as other speakers at this conference will testify.


However, it is important that we ensure that the rapid economic development of this region translates into better living standards and full democratic rights for workers. This is because we are locked into the international workers movement – and it is important that we make an effort in our neighbourhood.


The union movement should continue to build on our links in the region and use our membership of the ICFTU, SPOCTU etc. effectively. Support for the work of the ILO is important too in this regard.


It is also important that we are an active player in regional trade especially given the developments with APEC, GATT and the Uruguay Round.


Finally, I want to thank the ICTUR for their initiatives and the unions who set up this conference and I guarantee strong ACTU support for your work in the region and elsewhere in the world.


Speech by Martin Ferguson President, ACTU. International Conference On Trade Union Rights, Sydney, 28-29 October, 1993 Session 2: Regional Issues.