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South East Asian unions turn online to defend workers’ rights

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12 May, 2020During social distancing and lockdowns, unions in South East Asia are using online platforms to address workers’ concerns over job insecurity and defend their rights.

Union leaders are using online communication platforms to explain how workers’ rights are protected under national labour laws or to discuss Covid-19 policy response. Some unionists have used the phone for negotiating with employers to not cut wages.

In Myanmar, although the government has not imposed a nation-wide lockdown, the leadership of Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) has taken precautionary steps by holding online meetings with union leaders at factory-level.

“Many employers are attacking trade unions, hiding behind the impact of Covid-19. They either cut down wages or refuse to pay wages all together, and some union members have been fired without termination benefits. We brief them on what employers can or cannot do according to the laws,”

says IWFM president Khaing Zar, who is also a member of IndustriALL Global Union’s Executive Committee.

In the Philippines and Malaysia, movement control is severely restricted. As any physical activity is near impossible, unions in the two countries held online forums on the impact of Covid-19 on workers in conjunction with May Day.

“How unions can deliver an efficient service post covid-19 has become a challenging question,”

says Gabriel Aranzamendez, national president of the Confederation of Filipino Workers (CFW).

“We are confident that unions are able to swiftly adapt to a new normal and improve our communication strategy. It it is imperative for labour organizations to have a more collaborative working relationship with the government to accelerate the healing process of our nation.”

The general secretary of Malaysian union National Union of Transport Equipment and Allied Industries Workers, N. Gopalkishnam, presented ten demands from the Labour Law Reform Coalition at a Covid-19 forum. He called on the government to consult with unions by using teleconference platforms on workers’ issues, including labour law reforms.

Having made frequent phone calls to negotiate with employers over unreasonable wage reductions during the country’s lockdown, Gopalkishnam says:

“Seven companies claimed they could only afford to pay 50 to 70 per cent of wages in April. Since travelling and physically meeting with employers is impossible, we negotiated over the phone.”