Asia-Pacific

4.17

Systematic violations of rights

Worse than last year

The Asia-Pacific region is the second worst region in the world for workers’ rights, with an increase in its average rating from 4.09 to 4.17, falling between systematic violations of rights and no guarantee of rights.

In 2021, Myanmar, Cambodia and Hong Kong descended into violence with the suppression of workers’ protests and the prosecution of prominent union leaders. The Philippines saw an escalation of violence against workers and their representatives. A number of countries in the region adopted regressive laws which severely violated civil liberties and workers’ labour protections (India, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines).

At a glance

87%

87% of countries violated the right to strike.

91%

91% of countries violated the right to collective bargaining.

87%

87% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

74%

74% of countries in Asia-Pacific denied workers access to justice.

83%

83% of countries arrested and detained workers.

35%

Workers experienced violence in 35% of countries in Asia-Pacific.

91%

91% of countries impeded the registration of unions.

61%

61% of countries in Asia-Pacific restricted free speech and assembly.

Workers were murdered in Myanmar and the Philippines.

Workers' rights violations

Right to strikeProsecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

87%

87% of countries violated the right to strike.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 30 November 2020, police dispersed an indignation rally staged by Cebu workers at the Mactan Economic Zone to commemorate Bonifacio Day and denounce the government’s red-tagging of trade union activities. Five workers were arrested when police broke up the gathering: Dennis Derige, Myra Opada, Joksan Branzuela, Jonel Labrador and Cristito Pangan, all affiliated with Sentro ng Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (Sentro) and Partido Manggagawa (PM). They were detained for alleged violation of quarantine guidelines and disobedience. The five labour activists were freed after paying a fine of P1,000 (US$20)

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 5 October 2020, the Indonesian government passed, without any prior consultations with the national unions, an Omnibus Law which introduced sweeping changes to workers’ entitlements and environmental regulation.

Soon after, demonstrations organised by the unions swept the country. The strikes were met with violence and arbitrary arrests, with police detaining 183 people in South Sumatra and holding more than 200 protesters in Jakarta. Thirty-two members of Federation of Indonesian Metal Workers' Union (FSPMI) were injured by water cannons and tear gas in Bekasi, and another ten were arrested in Bekasi and Jakarta, as the police accused workers of striking outside of allowed hours.

Right to strikeDismissals for participating in strike action

87%

87% of countries violated the right to strike.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

On 28 July 2020, Hong Kong University fired law professor Benny Tai in relation to an alleged criminal conviction over his role in the 2014 pro-democracy protests. Mr Tai was one of the founders of the "umbrella protests" that called for greater democracy in Hong Kong. In 2019, a court sentenced him to 16 months in prison for “public nuisance”. He was granted bail in August 2019, pending an appeal. The university governing council's decision to dismiss Mr Tai went against a previous ruling by its senate, which said there were insufficient grounds to dismiss him. The decision “marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong,” Mr Tai said in a Facebook post.

Right to collective bargaining

91%

91% of countries violated the right to collective bargaining.

Right to collective bargaining

Malaysia Airlines has long refused to extend collective bargaining to crew supervisors, arguing that as management, they are ineligible for union representation. The National Union of Flight Attendants of Malaysia (NUFAM), which represents cabin crew at Malaysia Airlines, filed a case with the Federal court, which decided in July 2020, after a lengthy process, that crew supervisors had the right to union membership and collective bargaining. The Malaysian Trades Union Congress called on the airline to immediately recognise NUFAM as the legitimate representative of supervisors for collective bargaining purposes, which the company still refused to do.

Right to collective bargaining

Samsung failed to engage in collective bargaining in good faith, and it would not provide relevant data for negotiations. While there is a union, management has unilaterally determined wage rates. This is part of a pattern of violations by the company.

Right to collective bargaining

The Cambodian Airport Management Service (CAMS), of which Vinci holds major shares, stubbornly refused to engage in collective bargaining negotiations with the company-level unions, affiliated to the Cambodian Transport Workers’ Federation (CTWF), despite their certification as most representative unions in 2019. Negotiations had been first postponed by management and then came to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the company to impose work suspensions unilaterally in all three airports without consulting the union.

On 4 November 2020, CAMS informed the staff informally of the retrenchment of 161 employees, 121 being union members, and only agreed to disclose the list of workers retrenched to the unions on 24 November in a meeting with the ministry of labour. CAMS approached the workers individually to force them to accept the compensation package. By January 2021, CAMS had terminated 130 workers from the three airports in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. The ministry of labour ignored the unions’ calls denouncing these blatant violations of the labour laws.

Right to collective bargaining

On 15 July 2020, Cathay Pacific informed the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers’ Association (AOA) and the Flight Attendants’ Union that the company would unilaterally terminate the trade union recognition agreement in October and would desist from engaging in collective bargaining, calling it “an old-fashioned practice”. On 22 October 2020, Cathay Pacific announced the closing down of its subsidiary Cathay Dragon and the immediate retrenchment 7,346 cabin crew and 2,613 pilots. Staff were forced to enter into cheaper employment contracts, slashing 40 to 60 per cent of their salary and benefits. In June 2020, Cathay Pacific had benefited from a HK$360 million (US$46 million) government bailout.

Right to establish and join a trade unionWorkers excluded from labour protections

87%

87% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

Workers excluded from labour protections

Certain categories of public employees are still denied the right to freedom of association, such as firefighters and prison staff in Japan.

Right to establish and join a trade unionUnion Busting

87%

87% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

Union-busting

On 17 June 2020, workers at Greenfield Industry held a meeting to form a factory level union of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) and elected eleven union officials. Three days later, the human resources department summoned the eleven elected officials and informed them that the company could not renew their employment contracts due to a lack of orders and poor performance by the workers. As the union president disputed these made-up justifications, the company threatened the union officials, telling them to resign from C.CAWDU or face repercussions. The local union president, vice president, secretary and treasurer were dismissed, as they refused to sign the resignation letter presented to them. Six other union officials signed the letter and quit C.CAWDU under duress.

Union-busting

In June 2020, 3,000 Bangladeshi garment workers were dismissed as part of a union-busting exercise from three factories owned by the same company: Saybolt Tex, Tanaz Fashion and Windy Wet & Dry Process factories in Gazipur and Dhaka, Bangladesh. The three unionised factories are owned by the Windy Group (which owns an additional five non-unionised factories). 1,600 workers were fired from SAYBOLT TEX, 1,200 from Tanaz Fashion and 200 from Windy Wet & Dry Process. The dismissed workers have been staging hunger strikes and other protests at Windy Group factory premises to call for reinstatement.

Right to justice

74%

74% of countries in Asia-Pacific denied workers access to justice.

Right to justice

On 3 July 2020, the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, signed the Anti-Terrorism Act, a law that gravely undermines civil liberties and endangers rights at work by placing workers, trade union activists and other human rights actors and defenders under pressure from the police, the military and other security forces and exposes them to more arbitrary arrests, indiscriminate and baseless attacks, harassment, intimidation and extrajudicial killings.

Under the Act, an “Anti-Terrorism Council” appointed by the president can order the arrest of anyone designated a “terrorist” without a warrant or due process and hold them for up to 24 days. The law applies as well to alleged “incitement” "by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations tending to the same end", opening the way to even greater suppression of all forms of dissent and civic and social activism. Conviction under the law carries a penalty of up to twelve years' imprisonment.

Right to justice

On 30 June 2020, China’s top legislature unanimously passed a new National Security Law for Hong Kong, which criminalises virtually any act deemed as a threat to “national security" and provides for maximum penalties of life imprisonment. A year after, it was estimated that 97 Hong Kong rights activists had been arrested under the new law, eight of them being prosecuted. They faced spurious charges, such as money laundering, fraud and publishing seditious words.

In addition, another 10,200 people – 40% of them students – have been arrested in relation to the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests. In total, almost 2,450 have been prosecuted and judicial proceedings have been completed in more than 940 of these cases.

Right to civil liberties

83%

83% of countries arrested and detained workers.

Right to civil liberties

On 21 October 2020, the Thai courts imposed a three-year prison term on thirteen leaders of the State Railway Workers’ Union (SRUT). The SRUT workers have been ruthlessly pursued by the State Railway of Thailand through the legal system for carrying out a national rail safety campaign following a fatal train derailment in October 2009 at Khao Tao Station. The Thai authorities also pursued a vendetta against the workers, including through the Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

Since November 2018, the monthly salaries of seven SRUT leaders have been deducted to pay fines of 24 million Baht (US$726,116) to SRT based on the decision of the Supreme Labour Court in 2017.

Right to civil liberties

On 10 December 2020 at dawn, simultaneous raids were conducted by the Philippine National Police in various residences of trade union organisers in Metro Manila, Philippines. With search warrants on hand issued by a city executive judge, the police forced their entries into the residences and planted pieces of firearms, ammunition and explosive devices. Six trade union activists were arrested: Dennise Velasco of Defend Jobs Philippines; Romina Astudillo, deputy secretary-general of Kilusang Mayo Uno-Metro Manila; Mark Ryan Cruz of the Regional Executive Committee of KMU-Metro Manila; Jaymie Gregorio Jr of KMU-Metro Manila; Joel Demate of Solidarity of Labour Rights and Welfare (SOLAR); and Rodrigo Esparago of Sandigang Manggagawa sa Quezon City (SMQC).

They were all charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives. While a local court issued a decision of dismissal of the charges against Esparago, to date the police are still blocking his release.

Right to civil liberties

On 4 March 2021 at 4:30 a.m., the Philippine National Police-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group raided the residence of Ramir Edriga Corcolon and abducted him and brought him to Camp Vicente Lim in Laguna. Corcolon is the president of the San Pablo City Water District Employees Association (SPCWDEA) and the Water System Employees Response (WATER) secretary general.

The residence of Arnedo Sanggalang Lagunias, secretary of the Honda Workers Union, was raided on the same day at 6:00 a.m., and he was forcibly taken to the same camp. The police alleged to have found a handgun and explosives during the search.

Right to civil liberties

In 2021, the Filipino government increased repression against the independent union movement, illegally arresting and arbitrarily detaining twenty-eight trade union leaders in total.

On 7 March 2021, police forces raided unions’ offices and trade unionists’ homes in separate operations in the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas and Rizal, arresting eight, including Steve Mendoza, executive vice-president of the Organised Labour Association in Line Industries and Agriculture (OLALIA KMU) in Cabuyao, and Elizabeth Camoral, former union president of F-Tech and current spokesperson of Bayan-Laguna.

Right to civil liberties

Lee Cheuk-yan, general secretary of the independent Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), was arrested on 28 February 2020 and charged with “unauthorised assembly” for taking part in anti-government protests demanding the withdrawal of the extradition bill and universal suffrage in 2019. While he was released on bail pending trial, Lee was again charged on 11 June 2020 for inciting others to take part in an unauthorised assembly on 4 June 2020 to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, and on 6 August for the additional charge of organising and taking part in the unauthorised assembly together with 25 activists. Altogether, Lee was charged with nine counts over four unauthorised assemblies in 2019 and 2020.

After a four-week trial in March 2021, Lee Cheuk-yan, with six other activists, was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. He still has six charges to face from custody in the May and June 2021.

Right to civil liberties

In Hong Kong, 53 of the most prominent pro-democracy activists, including the chair of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), Carol Ng, have been arrested in a massive police crackdown. Carol Ng was arrested home on 6 January 2021 by the national security department for alleged “attempt to subvert the state power” under the 2020 National Security Law. Winnie Yu, chair of Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), was also arrested. The group stood accused of organising and participating in the primary elections for pro-democracy candidates in last year’s postponed elections. This was the largest political purge against the democrats since the enforcement of the National Security Law.

Right to civil liberties

On 31 July 2020, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) and prominent unionist in Cambodia, Rong Chhun, was arrested for “incitement to commit felony” regarding his public comments on farmland losses and border irregularities between Cambodia and Vietnam. Under this fallacious pretext, the Cambodian authorities in reality targeted his activities leading pickets in garment factory closures and urging the government to make human rights improvements, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rong Chhun faces two years in prison if convicted.

On 7 August 2020, at least seven protesters and CCU members were arrested for demanding Chhun’s release, including Sor Saknika, president of the Cambodian Informal Labourers’ Association (CILA), who was charged with incitement to join the solidarity protest and who remains, to this date, in pre-trial detention.

On 10 August, Ouk Chayavy, former president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA), was attacked by thugs after visiting Rong Chhun in prison. She was leading the Free Rong Chhun campaign and was in the process of submitting petitions to the UN and country representations.

Violent attacks on workers

35%

Workers experienced violence in 35% of countries in Asia-Pacific.

Violent attacks on workers

On 26 August 2020, Khamid Istakhori, general secretary of Federasi SERBUK, was physically assaulted during a peaceful protest against the Omnibus Bill for Job Creation at the Simpang Tiga PT Tanjung Enim Lestari.

The peaceful workers’ protest became violent when company management personnel began to brutally disperse the workers. Istakhori tried to intervene and negotiate but instead he was beaten up. Suffering from bruises and wounds on his face, Istakhori was hospitalised. Days after, he still experienced dizziness, nausea and headaches.

Violent attacks on workers

In the early morning of 8 August 2020, the Indonesian police brutally dispersed fifty members of the Federation of Indonesian Pulp and Paper Workers Union (FSP2KI) who were carrying out a blockade in front of PT. Tanjungenim Lestari Pulp and Paper (TELPP) in Lampung Province. A hundred and twenty police officers assaulted and beat union members. Several women union members were sexually harassed by police officers during the dispersal.

The workers had been taking action in front of the company gates for sixty-five days in solidarity with thirty-eight members whose work contracts were discontinued by the outsourcing company PT. Kaliguma Transindo, when TELPP ended the contract and appointed a new outsourcing company. They demanded that the new outsourcing company rehire all the workers who were formerly employed by PT Kaliguma Transindo.

Violent attacks on workers

On 25 July 2020, the police in Dhaka, Bangladesh, violently attacked garment workers from Viyellatex and Shofi Tex who were protesting unpaid wages and allowances. Police used disproportionate force to suppress the protest, using batons, gunshots, tear gas and sound grenades against workers. As a result of the attack, twelve workers were severely injured.

Right to trade union activities

91%

91% of countries impeded the registration of unions.

Right to trade union activities

In Afghanistan, the authorities have relentlessly targeted the National Union of Afghanistan Workers and Employees (NUAWE) since 2018, effectively preventing the union from operating. In September 2020, the Ministry of Justice issued a second ban on the trade union congress due to be held on 5 September 2020. An earlier attempt by the organisation to hold its congress in February also met with a government ban.

Furthermore, the government reneged on its pledge to unblock the organisation’s bank account and refused to return confiscated union’s properties “until a congress has been held”.

On 19 January 2021, NUAWE finally managed to hold its congress and later sent the list of new elected leadership to the government for registration, but their attempt was met with a flat refusal. To this date, the government still refuses to renew NUAWE’s registration or return its offices, properties and unfreeze its bank accounts.

Right to trade union activities

The Union for New Civil Servants, a Hong Kong civil servants union formed during the 2019 pro-democracy protests, was disbanded in January 2021. The decision came a day after the government set a four-week deadline for its workers to declare allegiance to the city and vow to uphold the Basic Law. The union chairman, Michael Ngan, announced that the group decided to dissolve in light of the impending loyalty pledge, which raised serious concerns about its members’ safety and could lead to the ousting of some of its members from the civil service.

Right to free speech and assembly

61%

61% of countries in Asia-Pacific restricted free speech and assembly.

Right to free speech and assembly

As Myanmar’s military coup escalated with the violent suppression of popular dissent, hundreds of people were arrested and detained without any due process. The military junta continued its descent into authoritarianism with its planned cyber law, which would give the authorities sweeping powers to block any content, placing the entire population under surveillance and eliminating freedom of speech.

The military released the planned law on 9 February 2021 with a spurious six-day “consultation” window. Even questioning an action of the junta online will lead to imprisonment and heavy fines. The law includes under its cyber-crime framework “written and verbal statement against any existing law” and “offences committed locally and internationally”, meaning that persons outside Myanmar who criticise the junta face the prospect of action by the Myanmar military.

Right to free speech and assembly

On 2 April 2020, Soy Sros, a local union leader at Superl Cambodia, a leatherware company, was arrested for ‘’provocation’’ under the Cambodian Criminal Code for social media posts criticising the suspension of union members, including a pregnant woman, during the coronavirus crisis. She was held at Kompong Speu provincial prison where, according to CUMW president Pav Sina, her health severely deteriorated.

Murders

Workers were murdered in Myanmar and the Philippines.

Murders

On 7 February 2021, Leonardo Escala, president of the union for dock workers at ICTSI’s Manila terminal, NMPI-ICTSI, and his four-year-old niece were shot multiple times by assassins outside his home in Tondo, Manila. His murderers escaped on scooters. Escala died an hour later at a hospital, where his niece remained for treatment after being shot at in the back.

Murders

On 17 August 2020, 39-year-old Zara Alvarez was shot dead. Alvarez was coordinator in Bacolod City for Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT). She was among the 600 individuals tagged as “terrorists” in the proscription case filed in Manila Regional Trial Court in 2018. Her name and photo appeared in posters in the streets of Negros as one of the alleged ranking officials of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Alvarez and many others were stricken off the list in 2019. However, those on the list were still threatened or vilified by alleged state forces. To this day, no arrest has been made in relation to the murder.

Murders

State violence against trade unionists is endemic in the Philippines as President Duterte condones and even orders targeted attacks to arrest and kill them. In early March 2021, he pronounced in a public speech his “desire to kill all communists”. On 7 March 2021, state forces launched coordinated raids against trade union leaders and activists in the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas and Rizal (Southern Tagalog). Five trade unionists were killed by the police, including Manny Asuncion and Michael Dasigao.

Murders

Since the military coup of 1 February 2021 in Myanmar, crowds turned out in force to call for the return to democracy and the restoration of the rule of law. Despite being faced with extreme brutality by the state forces who resorted to lethal force and mass arrests, their determination did not abate.

In early March, a coalition of labour unions called a strike with the goal of a “full, extended shutdown of the Myanmar economy.” Workers in several industries joined the protest movement, most notably from the state railway and the banking sector. Police intimidated railway workers in Mandalay, the country’s second biggest city, by roaming through their housing area one night, shouting and randomly firing guns.

In Yangon and elsewhere, raids are carried out nightly after the 8 p.m. curfew by police and soldiers firing guns and stun grenades and staging selective raids to arrest people. The arrests are often carried out at gunpoint, without warrants.

The total number of people killed in weeks of unrest has risen to at least 550 (at the time of writing), while hundreds more have been wounded and over 2,700 have been arrested, charged or already sentenced.

Asia-Pacific was the second worst region in the world for workers’ rights. India was one of several countries to adopt laws that severely violate civil liberties, leading to a general strike.Sanjay Kanojia / AFP

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