This paper looks at the issue of collective bargaining beyond the regulatory framework. The title ‘Beyond Collective Bargaining’ suggests a process wherein informal workers are able to constitute some form of political power. This includes process of creating and recreating social solidarity among various and diverse sectors, creating representational space and identifying target/s for collective bargaining.
The case studies used are based on the experience of workers’ organisation in the Southeast Asiaregion. The paper also accentuates the need for creating a democratic space for workers, especially the informal workers, where the values of democracy as political equality are being induced. The space should allow the informal workers to transform themselves to become the agents of change, fighting for their visibility and inclusion.
The paper begins by presenting the statistics and the trend of employment in Southeast Asia. This will lead us to conceptualise informalisation and what factors are driving people to engage to the informal work. Though, this is explained briefly with most of the emphasis being placed on the political consequence of informalisation. The brief explanation should become the background in understanding the nature of the society developed under given production relations.
Precarious life we are living in
Based on the ILO’s compilation of the figures in the Global Employment Trend 2011, in Southeast Asiaand the Pacific, almost 180 million workers are classified as vulnerably employed. More than 50 percent of workforces are classified as working poor who earn less than US$ 2/day. Out of the total 280 million employed workers almost 65 percent are vulnerably employed that encompasses own-account and contributing-family workers. The estimation presented here, however, does not include the unemployed, those who actively pursue opportunities to engage in the labour market.
These statistical figures may not be reliable in presenting the actual number of vulnerably employed workers. Nevertheless, this gives us a broader picture about the kind of society that exists or emerges under given production or labour relations. Conceptualising this situation becomes necessary in discussing and exploring strategies of collective bargaining. The conceptualisation thus becomes a political act since it focuses attention on some dimensions and diverts interests from what some might consider the more significant.
We live in an era where workers, seek to anchor themselves to precarious jobs. Through the opening up of new production space, we also witness how society is being transformed without any consent or participation of the population. In order to explain the phenomenon it is convenient to refer to Marx’s account on the primitive accumulation of capital that releases labour power as a commodity and ‘available for exploitation’. We are also familiar with the releasing of labour power through production restructuring that entails production cost cutting, flexibilisation of workforce and adoption of informal economy characteristics within the formal economy. The institutionalisation of flexibilisation and informality through regulatory framework in Asian countries has downplayed the role of unions and collective bargaining.
Meanwhile the releasing of labour power creates “floating” surplus of labour that is made accessible to expand the production and thus the capital accumulation. Indeed, Marx also paid attention to the mobilisation of the so called reserve army of labour in the rural area. As he noted that the latent reserve army of labour in rural area surfaces once the capitalist takes over the subsistence agriculture.
The releasing of labour power as a commodity is often accompanied by curtailing of the political and legal rights of the workers. If the flexibilisation of the workforce has seen the unions losing their membership and thus the bargaining power, then what will be the effective means of struggle? If all instruments of State facilitate the capital accumulation or pre-empt any possibilities that constitutes barriers to the accumulation, then what should we do to claim our democratic space? If the prevailing “democratic system” is tilted to support the market, then how do we redefine our democracy?
In trying to answer the questions posed above, it would be apt to start with a common story of land dispossession in the rural South East Asia.
Land dispossession and releasing of labour power
Sharing his experience, Bahrun, a landless peasant, recalls the day in 1996 when a local listed plantation company, PT London Sumatra (Lonsum) in Langkat district in the North Sumatraprovince, grabbed his village land in order to expand the plantation estates. For more than a decade, Bahrun and 75 other families have been fighting to reclaim the land that they been cultivating for generations since 1942.
He still remembers that in 1970s, the Plantationestates sought villagers’ approval to establish a bridge for transportation of the plantation products. To Bahrun, it meant that the Plantationby then clearly recognised villagers’ ownership over the land. In mid 1970s, the villagers got their land ownership certificate authorised by the sub-provincial authorities. Everything was normal until early 1990s when the Companies started to expand their rubber plantations and also started growing palm oil. This led to the forcible acquisition of the villagers’ land to bolster the growth of the expanding company. Bahrun and other families completely lost their land and livelihood since then. He and other families in his village have been earning meager sums of money by selling the midrib of palm oil leaves to home-based industries
He can still recall how the villagers lived in constant fear confronting terror from the military who forced them to evacuate their land. In 1998, the political reform swept through Indonesiaand almost overnight hundreds of political parties were set up. Democracy, local autonomy and freedom of association became keywords of the new political transition and a new electoral system was introduced. Bahrun and other villagers continued to remain strong in their perseverance to fight for their lost land and many political parties approached them whenever the election was approaching. Just like millions other victims of forced eviction and land grabbing in Indonesia. Bahrun merely became the target of local politicians’ election campaign. Yet all politicians’ promises come to no avail.
Such a story has become folkloric for rural people in developing Asian countries. In Cambodia, 85 companies hold concession over 956.690 ha of land (MAFF 2010), while in Laos, in 2011, there are 2000 land concession projects nationwide (farmlandgrab 2011). Most of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Lao PDRstill goes into resource sector, particularly hydropower and mining (about 80% of the total FDI) (GTZ 2009). Between 1991 and 2004, there have been 1551 land disputes in Cambodiacovering over 380000 hectares of land involving more than 160000 farming families (Landwatch Asia 2008). As of 2006, two thirds of these cases remained unsolved (Landwatch Asia 2008).
In Philippines, where 75 percent of the labour force is employed in the agricultural sector, seven out of ten farmers are landless. Indonesiaand the Philippinesare putting more and more of their land under corporate owned plantations; and aggressively promoting large scale mining operations; and modifying their investment laws to entice foreign capital into the country and repress any local opposition to investment project. In the Philippines, out of every one hundred peasants, twenty one are agricultural workers, twenty eight are unpaid family workers, twenty six are under some form of tenancy relation and only twenty five own small piece of land (AMRC and EILER 2010). The expansion of plantation industry in South Thailandhas left around 118,125 families landless (LRN 2011).
How to start exploring collective bargaining strategies in rural area
Through the “peasant labour process”, where the traditional subsistence agriculture is gradually taken over by ‘plantations’, transnational capital coexists with various forms of family production, facilitated by State (Crichlow, 2000). In general, the accumulation of capital always requires a space functioning as a container, conduit to facilitate the mobility of the capital. Within the process, some spatial arrangement is necessary allowing capital to extract the natural resources and have access to the pool of cheap labours.
The spatial arrangement requires the reorganising of existing social structure as to create source of cheap labours who are ready to marketise themselves with the low wage. This takes place commonly through dispossession of the livelihood, land monetisation, and privatisation. We are familiar with the story of the expansion of plantation industry, privatisation of the coastal area and other stories where people are dispossessed from their livelihood and land. The “peasant labour process”, depicting the social transformation in the rural area where peasants and fishermen are forcibly dragged to engaged to waged labour, applies here.
Furthermore, the involvement of family members in informalisation is also seen here. For example to meet the target weight of fresh fruit bunch harvested at palm oil plantations in a day, the casual workers re-casualises the work to their wives and children. The informalisation also goes further beyond the production process. There is a process where multi-layer of labour is created. The landless peasants scraping for palm oil leaves are actually performing non-waged job for the plantation by offering free cleaning services. Indeed, the plantation benefits from this non-waged job as part of externalisation of the production costs related risks and other subsequent social costs thus enabling maximum accumulation. In a very subtle and coercive manner the society is transformed to serve the capital.
The following section focuses on the cases and examples to show the manner in which collective bargaining power is constituted on ground.
Collective bargaining power is constituted: Re-creation of social solidarity and understanding the power relations
In Indonesia, casual palm oil plantation workers and landless peasants agreed to set up a cross sector alliance in Langkat district in the NorthSumatraProvince. The process was initiated by mapping the impacts of palm oil industry on society. This also included mapping the State agents who facilitate land expropriation. The challenging issue here is horizontal conflict accompanying the ‘land grabbing’ wherethe foreman/supervisor at the plantation orders the casual plantation workers to destroy the peasants’ crops. Spontaneous resistance coming from peasants then is quickly directed towards the workers who are assigned to clear up the land rather than the company itself.
Recreating social solidarity between landless peasants and casual workers who are severely impacted by the plantation industry becomes the basis for collective action. Landless peasants emphasise the importance of political struggle to reclaim their land. The social solidarity was recreated in this cross sector forum when the peasants conceptualised their strategy and clearly recognised that plantation workers were also fully entitled to land and livelihood. As for the workers, who often experience violence from company goons when attempting to organise, felt reassured that community and peasants would support their struggle to organise against the plantation. Some peasants even committed to provide their houses as hiding place for workers escaping from violence.
They agreed on the idea of organising and sensitising the ‘village chiefs’ in their favour. This was based on the output of identifying power relations and understanding the role of political structure in the village. As chief of the villages are often approached by the plantation and often compromise to favour the plantation, the groups decided to approach them and try to get them on their side. Political education also became the main program as they also planned that in future some of them would become village chiefs.
Besides the general plan, each sector also develops their plan for collective bargaining. For example, a group of casual plantation workers named as “the group of the braves” would soon negotiate with the management over bonus and working equipment. The workers gained their confidence after successfully organising a strike at plantation. In a similar manner, the landless peasants planned to consolidate themselves and assessed their strategy in the past in dealing with land grabbing.
Though it has to be understood that the road to political collective bargaining power, in which this cross sector alliance is recognized as a political entity challenging the power of plantation and State, is still a long one.
In 2007 a group in Thailand, the Federation of Southern Farmers launched their land reform initiative by occupying the land and setting up communities around palm oil plantations. The federation, which consists of three communities encompassing 774 families, actively involves in the Land Reform Network (LRN). Each community set up regulation which they refer to as community constitution. The group also demanded the local government to endorse the “constitution” to recognize the rights of the community to the land that they occupy. LRN has also been active in linking up the movement in rural and urban area to fight for the rights to land. In Philippines, workers groups from seven sugarcane plantations decided to set up a platform for change. The groups drafted some demands to be negotiated before the congress members.
Precarious society in urban area
As Mike Davis mentioned in Planet of the Slums, urban involution happens when the village lose its storage capacity. The landlessness pushes people to migrate to the city and compete against each other or engage in self exploitative job. In the context of Southeast Asia, the mobilisation of labour power takes several forms. Establishment of special economic zone that triggers migration influx to the zone is one of them. Yet, of course, the factories, due to flexibilisation of the work, have limited capacity to absorb all the entire workforces. What takes place then is the burgeoning informal activities either to provide affordable goods and services for workers or engage to informal work which is then integrated to the manufacturing process.
There are two salient points that we need to take into account in looking at the informalisation in urban area within the context of collective bargaining.
First, competition among workers for the livelihood territory
In this context, we need to look at the idea of “public space” which is constructed by the given social relation. It is a contested space between those who benefit from it and those who are marginalised. However, the contested space contains certain complexity due to the competition among workers as will be explained in the next point.
Second, the assumption of urban poor being uprooted from the collective culture.
Many argue that the major challenge posed by organising the urban poor is the “independent” culture of the urban poor. This gives a hint of the survival condition that they live in that the informal workers in urban area must compete against each other to survive their livelihood. Unlike the manufacture workers who are concentrated on the worksites and disciplined with the regular working hours, the nature of the work of informal workers in urban slum is highly mobile and dispersed. However, identifying common agendas is always vital in organising and sustaining the organisation. But the remaining challenge often lies on the process to solve the issue of competition among workers. Following are the example of collective bargaining process taken up by informal workers in urban area. The two brief case studies below show the example how space is contested and also competition among workers for the livelihood territory.
Negotiation before the authority and struggle for livelihood
In December 2007, the outflow of BengawanSoloRiverin Solo, Central Java Province, Indonesiacaused flood that inundated more than 6000 houses forcing thousands of families to flee from their homes. After the flood, Solo municipal government evicted slum area dwelling as part of their post disaster city renewal. The government planned to restructure the city and establish public housing flats which were unaffordable for the evicted community.
The waste pickers’ organisation initiated community organising to fight against the relocation. In their efforts to change the public policy, the organisation insisted on having direct hearing/dialog with the mayor. They refused to be mediated by sub district chief or village chief in the dialog process. Small gains have been achieved so far, with the mayor, himself, eliciting the opinion from the groups regarding the urban renewal planning. From this experience, the waste pickers group also learnt that they had to start envisioning urban planning in favour of the informal workers. The process of gaining recognition, being involved in the decision making process, has been a valuable lesson that needs to be encouraged and spread to other groups.
Tuk-tuk drivers in Cambodia, for instance, have to compete with taxi drivers. The taxi drivers themselves work for a taxi company whose service is exclusively used by big hotels. The rise of the taxi industry threatened the livelihood of the tuk tuk drivers. The organisation of tuk-tuk drivers negotiated with the hotel to allow the drivers to pick up passengers from the hotel. The organisation also negotiated with the local authorities to guarantee the rights of informal workers to earn a livelihood.
Role of unions in changing landscape
In understanding the role of unions in the changing landscape, we need to look into historical trajectory of capital reasserting its power and control over full time proletariat labour. Here, we can refer to Braudelian scheme (cited by Broad,2000) to look at the process of commodification of labour. Referring to the scheme, the informalisation and casualisation of labour takes place through several historical stages. First, the corporate restructuring of capital where Fordism regime of capital accumulation through mass-production and mass-consumption set the stage for bargaining power vis a vis with capital.
The stage was seized by proletariat labour in mid of twentieth century that they gained their rights, high living standard and other benefits. Second, the proletariat labours then gained their strength as a class constituting impediment for capital dictation over production process. Third, global restructuring then was introduced in 1960s to reassert capital control over labour. The global restructuring entailing re-organisation of work and flexibilisation of labour then has been a trend of weakening workers’ collective power through casualisation and informalisation.
Then the question now is how to seize back the political space that has been reconstructed by capital through the global restructuring? In looking at the role of the union in the changing landscape, in this article, I will present two examples of strategies developed by the union to seize its political space:
Broadening the organising scope to reach out to informal economy workers.Some unions in Indonesia, Cambodiaand Thailand, for instance, are adjusting their union structure by expanding the organising scope which reaches out the informal economy.The union activists often argue that informal workers are not well equipped and experienced in developing bargaining strategy. Thus, the role of the union, commonly federation or confederation, is to be an umbrella organisation supporting the advocacy work and capacity building or skill sharing. This is also often due to the assumption that informal economy workers are not concentrated in one worksite and highly mobile, thus they are uprooted from the union collective culture.
Establishing “alternative” union to accommodate contract workers.The initiative is taken up to overcome the barrier due to the absence of rights to unionize. In some industrial zones in Indonesia, for example, the union organises contract workers and set up contract workers’ organisation outside the factory. Later, this contract workers’ organisation expands its scope reaching out other informal economy workers in the community. This, then, requires the union to adjust its structure to accommodate the informal workers.
Again, the remaining basic question is to identify forms of workers organisation which is politically sufficient to seize back the collective bargaining power. In that sense, we need to assess what forms of organisations which are sustainable and representative for workers. There are some experiments which have been put into practice such as a confederation which organises informal economy workers transforms itself into a mass organisation, explicitly a political organisation of the working people and (loose) alliance between union and informal economy workers striving for common agendas. However, discussion on the best forms of organisation always goes back to the need of workers.
Beyond collective bargaining: creating democratic space for visibility
In summing up, “beyond collective bargaining” suggests a process beyond the regulatory framework. Thus, collective bargaining is not about demanding the State to create a space within the system where the rights to collective bargaining is merely to moderate the conflict between workers and capital. Its emphasis is on creating a space where political compatibility can be gained by inducing the values of democracy, not as a formal democracy but political equality as a substance of democracy. Thus, the concept of democracy here refers to transforming the very form of democracy by creating spaces which allow people, as they fight to change their circumstances, to transform themselves as well(Hanecker, 2010).
There are several strategies of collective bargaining that need to be explored further. Creating a moment to make the groups visible is one of them. Again, as emphasised before, the visibility here does not necessarily refer to formal recognition. It refers to the capacity of the groups in making themselves agents of change. This is reflected in the process of initiating cross sector alliance in Indonesiaand demanding the government to endorse the communal constitution in Thailand. Collective bargaining strategy often involves the ability of the groups to seize available opportunities in the formal political sphere which can benefit workers.
The cases studies of tuk-tuk drivers organising in Cambodiaand waste pickers organising in Indonesiashows how the public space, citing from Springer (2008), is a process, never a complete project, always in a state of flux between those who seek to deprive it and those who seek to expand it. Public space has been exclusionary for some and of course, accessible to those who have more political power than the marginalised.
Thus, envisioning a democratic public space is necessary. However, this contains entrapment that can misguide us to the new forms of livelihood competition where the logic of the free market applies. Claiming political space here then, needs to be translated into concrete strategies to overcome the competition between workers. Just like the case study of organising plantation workers and landless peasants in rural area, the recreation of social solidarity is necessitated here.
As mentioned briefly before, the dispossession of land and deruralisation, taking form of the opening up of production space in the rural area, have generated surplus of labours who are then engaging themselves to precarity in the urban area. Then by going to the root of the problems, we could easily come up with the conclusion that livelihood is never about having precarious and indecent jobs such as waste-picking, commercial sex work etc. But the question is always what it takes, in concrete manner, to replace the existing social relation?
In the end, indeed first of all, there is a need to link up the sporadic resistance movement against the dispossession in rural and urban area. As pointed by Harvey(2008), the common demand should be simple enough in principle that is greater democratic control over the production and utilisation of the surplus. However, to reach to that point, we need to translate the demands into concrete step-by-step political strategy.
Recreating social solidarity should be the initial step to gain a political power. Nevertheless, recreating social solidarity requires a comprehensive assessment on what issues constituted barriers for different groups to unite. Let’s say in the context of organising the urban poor, there is patron-client culture in the urban community and strong primordial boundary which constitute barrier in bridging various groups for common agendas. Privatisation of public facilities indeed has been the common issues of the urban poor. But then again the challenge is how this common issue can sustain any forms of solidarity among the poor.
Another remaining challenge is how to secure the gains which have been achieved and/or expand the impact of collective bargaining. The impact of gains such as communal land tilling, communal constitution and cross sector alliance is still provincial and localised. Some efforts need to be taken up to expand the impacts to the broader scope.
In the end, collective bargaining is way beyond that of demanding the basic rights of workers. It is about changing the society that lives in a precarious life. It is about making working people to be politically compatible to counter the power of State and market. It is a process where the genuine democratic space is created and informal workers are visible, capable to become agent of changes thereof.
 Conceptualizing (informalization) is a political act since it focuses attention on some dimensions and diverts interests from what some might consider the more significant (Miller 1987, 27-28 as cited by Peterson 2003)
 Here, the full time proletariat labour refers to the “full time” waged manufacture workers dated back to the Fordism era. However the terms of waged labour nowadays applies to the society which has been subsumed to the circuit of capital as shown by the example of peasant-labour process.
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