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South East Asia cement unions struggle for jobs and income at COVID-19 crisis

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7 September, 2020Covid-19 has brought a lot of challenges for cement unions in South East Asia, including government attacks on workers’ rights, suspended trade union registrations, and increasing precarious employment conditions. 

Around 35 union leaders from the cement sector in Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam discussed their experiences at a virtual regional workshop for South East Asia on 27 August.

Global cement production is immensely impacted by the pandemic. Cement multinationals, including LafargeHolcim, HeidelbergCement and CRH until recently were inclined to “retreat” from Asia region and their presence in Europe and North America was regarded as less risky. But pandemic might change this narrative. For instance LafargeHolcim was forced to keep its facilities in the Philippines through the decision by the antitrust national body in the country. But other players in view of pandemic may voluntary decide to stay or return to Asia where population is younger than in Europe.

Overcapacity entailing lower prices, economic losses and as consequence lower wages and worse conditions forkers in the cement industry remains a problem in the region. In Vietnam, some 30 per cent of the 103 million tons cement produced every year is exported, with the main importers being Bangladesh, China and the Philippines. Vietnam’s government is now launching a new strategy aimed at curbing their excessive capacity. The strategy includes an imposed rules to improve productivity and ecological footprint of the cement companies. In Vietnam there are close to 30 smaller 0.9 million ton per year producers. The new strategy is likely to affect them the most.

In fear of increased cement imports into already saturated cement market of Indonesia, unions have appealed to the government for a moratorium on new cement factories in the country and repeal the policy on cement and clinker imports. In case the imports continue cement workers may see increasing pressure on their wages and conditions.

Participants shared different measures adopted by the South East Asian governments to prevent further spread of the virus. Enhanced community quarantine in Philippines, large scale social restrictions in Indonesia and a night curfew in Thailand have severely affected trade union registration and restricted the movement and communication of unionists.

During quarantine in the Philippines, the Bureau of Labour Relations stopped processing all trade union applications from March till July, undermining organizing. In addition, because of dismissals during the pandemic workers end up in an informal economy. The unions try to assist workers who have lost their jobs until they find ones, and keep them as members.

In Indonesia, IndustriALL affiliate FSP ISI tries to engage young cement workers in the unions by educating them and inviting them to the union activities. In the next few years the union will also focus on organizing young women workers.

Cement unions in Thailand are planning to reform their union structure and to form a federation of cement unions with the view to create later an industry-based union.

With the view to continue and improve their communication on challenges and the ways to cope with them, the participants decided to explore the ways to stay in touch within the South East Asia cement network through a special group on Facebook.

IndustriALL South East Asia regional secretary Annie Adviento, says:

“Cement companies must ensure decent work for workers, while promoting employment. The issue of overcapacity must be addressed through social dialogue with unions, employers and the government.”

Alexander Ivanou, IndustriALL’s materials industries officer, says:

“All cement companies in South East Asia must provide social protection to their workers during the pandemic. This includes regular health checks, prevention protocols applied in close discussion with unions, and employers must restrain from dismissals in these uncertain times. As unions, we will continue to organize workers and fight for their safety at work.”