Labor Rights in East Asia: Progress or Regress?

By Caraway, Teri L. | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2009 | Go to article overview

Labor Rights in East Asia: Progress or Regress?


Caraway, Teri L., Journal of East Asian Studies


This article examines the impact of recent economic and political change on collective and individual labor rights in East Asia. Deploying a new index for measuring de jure and de facto labor rights, the article presents new comparative data on labor rights in the region. Democratization has produced stronger collective labor rights in much of the region, but labor laws in most countries still fall far short of international labor standards. East Asia's labor laws offer similar levels of protection for individual labor rights to the rest of the world when firing costs are taken into account, and low regional averages are primarily an effect of Singapore's extremely weak individual labor rights. Few countries have revised their labor laws in the direction of greater labor market flexibility. However, the distance between law and practice is wide, so improvements in laws are not necessarily reflected on the ground. Flexibility enters through the back door of ineffective labor law enforcement, which in turn has affected the organizing efforts of unions.

KEYWORDS: labor rights, trade unions, East Asia, Southeast Asia, labor market flexibility, labor law, freedom of association, collective bargaining, right to strike

For much of the postwar era, many of the fastest growing economies of the world were in East Asia. "Beneath the miracle" of East Asia's stunning growth hid the ugly fact of severe labor rights violations (Caraway 2006a; Deyo 1987, 1989; Hadiz 1997; Rasiah and von Hofmann 1998). Since the late 1980s, however, democratization has opened political space for unions in some countries, and labor law reforms in others have strengthened the collective rights of workers. Yet the Asian financial crisis also gave the international financial institutions and employers an exceptional opportunity to roll back labor laws that partially shielded workers from market turmoil.

Unfortunately, the impact of these disparate pressures on labor rights in the region has not been fully explored because of the absence of data. In this article, I present data on both collective and individual labor rights that will allow scholars to draw better conclusions about labor rights in the region. (1) Most cross-national datasets that include Asia focus on one or the other; consequently, we have only partial views of how contemporary economic and political forces are affecting labor rights. (2) Collective labor law concerns the regulation of union formation, collective bargaining, and the right to strike, whereas individual labor law regulates employment contracts between individuals and employers. The individual rights index used here, while relying on World Bank data, further develops their work by incorporating firing costs into a unified measure.

Second, this study offers indexes that distinguish between de jure and de facto labor rights. Most cross-national research either combines de jure and de facto indicators (Kucera 2004; Mosley and Uno 2007) or focuses exclusively on the law (Botero et al. 2004; World Bank 2007; for Latin America only, see Murillo 2005 and Murillo and Schrank 2005). Both matter. Labor laws set the boundaries of the legal rights that workers can claim, but they are meaningless if they are not enforced. Offering separate indexes for de jure and de facto labor rights also expands the set of questions that scholars can address in their work.

The main focus of this article is the presentation and analysis of the regional data on individual and collective labor rights, both de jure and de facto, including a consideration of trends and comparisons with both the advanced industrial states and other regions. But it also offers some preliminary observations about causal processes and highlights empirical patterns and puzzles that are worth exploring more systematically in future research.

First, de jure and de facto collective labor rights have improved in the region, largely as a consequence of democratization. …

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