Parat Na Nakorn is the newly-elected coordinator of Asia-Pacific Workers Solidarity Links (APWSL), a network of labour solidarity organisations in countries across Asia and the Pacific. In October 2005 she visited Australia to attend a meeting of the APWSL Secretariat. While in Australia she spoke with Alison Thorne.
The aims of APWSL are to promote democratic, independent and pro-worker trade unionism; to promote international worker solidarity, especially at the grassroots level; to promote gender equality in its own work and the wider trade union movement; and to promote workers and other human rights.
Na Nakorn explained that APWSL organises by “working on solidarity campaigns and exchanging information between worker activists in different countries.” She recently visited Singapore and met with Thai migrant workers. “We exchanged experiences as grassroots worker leaders. The aim is to learn from each other because, under globalisation, the situation of workers is the same everywhere.”
APWSL has also been campaigning for democratic rights in Nepal. “The King took all the power in Nepal and continues to repress working people. We understand that it is important to organise to support workers in Nepal, because removal of democratic rights can happen anywhere and the same situation could one day come to Thailand. Our campaign has involved both education and organising. Firstly, we explained the situation and then we held protests outside the Nepalese Embassy. Later, we held a coordinated day of action across Asia with other APWSL groups.”
Na Nakorn is emphatic that APWSL is not an NGO and organises quite differently. [Editor’s note: Non-Government Organisations, or NGOs, are welfare or similar groups funded by governments or international agencies and generally are subject to restrictive regulations or funding contracts. This leads to a tendency towards the creation of bureaucratic structures.] “APWSL will work with NGOs when we can, but we are a grassroots organisation made up of workers. NGOs often speak fine words but do not turn them into action. They do not develop workers to be leaders. I have found working with NGOs very difficult, because they are dominated by people from the student movement whose ideas about how to organise are very different from the ideas of workers.
“There are particular problems with how NGOs work in the labour movement. Workers simply don’t accept them, because they are outsiders and do not operate like workers’ organisations. What they call workers’ education is really a form of control, yet workers do not want to be controlled, they want to be empowered. The NGOs can talk about the oppression of workers but cannot make connections with them.
“We are campaigning for genuine trade unions. Some unions are not genuine, because they do not represent the interests of workers. They side with the government and the employer to obtain good salaries for the labour leaders at the expense of the workers. I characterise these unions as yellow unions or deformed unions. Unfortunately there are many of them in Thailand and their growth has weakened the movement.
“To make the movement stronger, workers need education and need opportunities to learn. We need to learn about workers’ rights, labour law and how to organise. The problems are the same in every country so we can learn from each other. The employers always use the same threats. They tell us that if we want better pay and conditions, they will close the factory and move to China. But then we find out that workers in China are being told that if they want better conditions, the factory will move to Vietnam. For workers, the exploitation is the same.”
Apprenticeship in struggle. Na Nakorn is a strong grassroots organiser. Half the Thai workforce is female and, in the textile industry, women make up 80% of the workforce. “I took on the APWSL coordinator role in June 2005, but I have been a working class and feminist organiser since 1992. Before that, I was a factory worker. My first job was in a garment factory where the working conditions were terrible. Every day we were forced to work overtime and the employer did not pay us for this. He would just lock the door so that we could not leave. We formed a group within the factory to organise for improvements and called ourselves the workers’ group. I didn’t know much about unions at this time, but because I was leading the group, the boss decided to sack me. It was discrimination because I was organising for better conditions.
“After that, I worked for the German company, Triumph, sewing underwear. At Triumph they had a trade union, but it had become very weak. I worked with others to try to rebuild the union, because when workers have a strong union, then we have power.”
APWSL has local groups all around Asia and the Pacific. In Korea the group has played a key role in establishing a migrant workers’ union, led by Nepalese immigrant workers. In Japan the local group has been campaigning to force Toyota to reverse a decision to set up a company union in the Philippines while dismissing leaders of the genuine union. Australia Asia Worker Links is the local APWSL affiliate in Australia.
Before taking on the international coordination role, Na Nakorn was active in the local group. “We have a local APWSL group in Thailand and I was involved for six years. We worked intensively with workers in the industrial areas, especially garment workers. We were making progress, but when the economic crisis hit in 1997 a lot of workers were laid off, especially textile workers.” The next few years are not predicted to be easier. The unemployment rate in Thailand is expected to reach 10%.
We often hear about the depth of exploitation of workers in Asia. But Na Nakorn was keen to explain that the Thai workers’ movement has achieved some good wins in the past. “Pregnant workers can have three months off work to take care of their baby. This leave is paid. Half the pay is from the employer and half is from social security. The workers’ movement has also fought for and won improved social security.” Na Nakorn was appalled to hear that the union movement in Australia has not yet won a national maternity leave scheme guaranteeing paid time off for mothers.
But the savage impact of globalisation means that wins are becoming scarce. “It’s been more difficult to win things since the economic crisis, because workers have been getting laid off. Even though there are some good labour laws, the employers sometimes cheat and ignore them.”
Women hit hardest. Na Nakorn proudly describes herself as a working class feminist. “The position of women in Thai society today is bad, particularly for women who are workers. Men hold most of the leadership positions in the union movement and the government. Feminists are campaigning to challenge the sexism in the culture — and the assumption that men should hold the power. Some men do understand women’s position and want to work with us but, unfortunately, not many. Most men do not talk about women’s issues and just leave this organising to women.
“The position of women is getting worse under globalisation, because they are expected to take more responsibility for families and for society. At the same time, the economic crisis has made jobs more vulnerable. I used to be an activist with a women’s organisation that worked with young women sex workers from Northern Thailand. Poor families send women from the countryside to the cities to work to support them. Many have no choice but to become sex workers when they cannot find other jobs. Last year I visited Japan. The trip was funded by the Toyota foundation and organised by Yurico Saita, who is a teacher at Kasen University in Tokyo. The focus of that visit was on women’s rights and migrant workers’ rights. I met many young North Thai women who were working in Japan as sex workers to send money home. Some were deceived by traffickers who offer them what sounds like a great job opportunity to earn money to support their families.
“The campaign for sex workers’ rights needs to be linked to the broader campaign for women’s rights and workers’ rights. The pay is really low in garment factories, and even very experienced workers earn just 5,000 baht, which is $150 Australian per month. How can people live on this? There are also real problems with subcontracting, which enables employers to avoid their responsibilities under the labour laws.”
On paper, the Thai labour laws are quite good. But getting them implemented is a different question, because employers disregard them. Na Nakorn explains: “The labour laws don’t allow employers to lay off workers or to make them sub-contractors. Yet this happens in every factory. Enforced overtime is also illegal, but it still happens. Workers sometimes take employers to court after they’ve been laid off illegally, but it can take five to ten years to hear a case. And they have no money to employ lawyers. So many just give up. They decide they can’t fight in the Labour Court and just try to find another job.
“My observation is that workers in Australia are facing the same sort of attacks and challenges being faced by workers across Asia. The problems the movement is facing are huge, and the solutions will only be found internationally. We have to find ways to give each other real solidarity. That is what APWSL is all about.”
APWSL has established a new website: www.labourasia.net, which publishes information in a range of languages including English, Korean, Indonesian, Thai, Hindi, Nepali, Sinhala and Tamil.