Group must address insecurities that working people face

By Rosalinda Pineda Ofreneo and D. L. Doane
Published on the Talk of the Town column of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, A16, December 10, 2006

Can Asean be true to its vision of “one caring and sharing community” if it is just governments talking to each other across negotiating tables? Obviously, the Asean people must be involved, especially those who comprise the working majority.

Most of the employed in Asean are workers in the informal economy (at least 20 million or 65 percent of total employed in the Philippines in 2004). Among them are home-based workers, vendors, stall sellers, waste recyclers, small transport drivers, construction workers, and others. Many are women who, aside from having to work to earn a pittance to ensure survival, also shoulder the burden of housework, child care and community service.

The informal economy has been growing due to the combined effects of liberalization, deregulation and privatization, which have driven out millions of workers from the formal economy (24 million, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis). At the same time, the informal economy serves as the bottom rung of the production ladder, which enables firms to maintain a small core of regular workers and have access to a large pool of cheap casual labor.

In the Asean, therefore, many are seriously affected by various forms of insecurity. Economic insecurity is a constant threat to workers who have in many cases no labor and social protection. Formal workers under flexibilization and contractualization are vulnerable to job loss and abuse. Migrant workers can be easily terminated and deported. Home-based and other informal producers know that job orders can suddenly disappear with no other alternative in sight, or that their savings can easily be wiped out by a sudden death or illness.

To be truly a caring and sharing community, the Asean must address the insecurities that working people experience on a daily basis. It must strive toward the broader vision of human security which is based on freedom from fear and want, whereby basic needs become basic rights, and citizens are empowered to develop their potential and participate in decision-making.

The Asean’s stated concern for social protection is a positive step but efforts must be concrete and comprehensive such as Thailand’s initiative to have a universal health care system. Likewise, an integrated approach to social protection is a must in order to meet the economic and other human security requirements of the working peoples—e.g., sustainable jobs, farms and livelihood; access to affordable health care, education and housing; safe community and liveable environment; guarantees on civil and political rights, including personal protection related to domestic violence. Without an integrated approach, social protection policies, narrowly defined, simply cannot work for informal workers who generally are not even able to contribute to their own social security.

In this context, we support the campaign for decent work based on the ILO Conventions on freedom of association, social protection, nondiscrimination at work, and the elimination of forced and child labor. We also urge the immediate ratification by the Asean-member countries of the ILO Convention on Home Work (ILC 177). In the Asean, there are millions of homeworkers (at least six million in the Philippines), most of whom are women who are multi-burdened and subjected to gender-based discrimination.

The human security deficits in the Asean have also emboldened informal workers to be more active in the campaign for fair trade policies. Fair trade means changes in macroeconomic policies to give an even chance for local producers to have a rightful share of the domestic market, e.g., campaign for a recalibration of tariffs and a stop to smuggling and dumping of cheap foreign products.

Fair trade means enhancing domestic economic sustainability through the use of locally available resources, production catering to basic community needs, and respect for the environment. Fair trade also means ensuring workers’ rights to just remuneration, job security, social protection and safe working conditions. Finally, fair trade means promoting gender equity through recognition of women’s work, greater equality in the division of labor, and stronger participation of women in decision-making.

In the face of the exclusionary outcomes of economic liberalization, we call for openness and transparency in the Asean processes. The interests of women and working people, especially those in the informal economy, need to be articulated, recognized and carried forward. A genuine Asean community striving for human security is anchored on fair and balanced participation in the development processes as well as on the equitable distribution of opportunities, resources and benefits.

(Ofreneo is the regional coordinator of Homenet Southeast Asia [HSA] while Doane is a research consultant of HSA and of Fair Trade Alliance.)

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