Andi Cipta Asmawaty’s Year in Reflection

In our latest Year in Reflection series, we invited Andi Cipta Asmawaty at the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD).

In 2022, which workers’ struggle in Asia that has particularly impressed you?

The Filipino workers’ struggle really pushed forward the resistance against the Marcos Jr regime. In recent years, at least 134 human rights defenders have been killed, and according to Karapatan, at least nine (9) human rights defenders have been killed since the Pandemic started. The death of even one human rights defender is way too many. The cases of union busting, threats and attacks to workers, union leaders and human rights defenders in the Philippines are unfortunately not isolated cases.We demand justice for human rights defenders who have been victims of extrajudicial killings.

And, women gig workers in India have protested platform companies and the government, demanding better wages and working conditions. Gig workers were organised and mobilised, and most of those involved were women. Workers argued that the platform economy claims that  flexible working hours are to the worker’s advantage, but, in fact, they force women to work more than their capacity. 

What is one labour issue that you think is not given enough attention?

Women workers in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are left out somewhere in the big union conversations.

In Sri Lanka, eighty-five percent (85%) of the workers in Free Trade Zones (FTZs) in Sri Lanka are women. Most women migrated from rural areas and are generally economically marginalised because they are hired as low-wage workers and trapped in labour exploitation despite the hope to improve their and their family’s quality of life.

In Katunayake FTZ, thousands of garment workers have to cope with long working hours for little pay and are forced to work in an exploitative system where it is difficult to get unpaid sick leave. Soaring cost-of-living crises brought more misery for women workers who have been working in low-standard employment and harsh conditions. Some experienced retrenchment, and for the rest, the pay and benefits are rock-bottom. They are forced to bear the risk of economic recession.

Moreover, the impact of digitalisation on not only gig workers but on all workers is really crucial to touch upon, as well as how the different types of jobs will change due to artificial intelligence and robotics, or even what the platform companies refer to as “SMART manufacture supply chain”.  We really have to think and revisit how we define the future of work. 

Is there any interesting insight that you would like to share?

When I learned that capital will follow cheap labour, it comes to my mind that we should really pay attention to one particular country, which claims to be a superpower and expands its national investments to other countries, and links these issues to the giant power of big technologies.

For instance, a study in 2019 identified and listed Chinese financing and investment in ICT development, and looked into how this development takes place to support Chinese-funded SEZs in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other countries, where some claim that the internet of things makes them easy to communicate each other within suppliers, with buyers, with brands or investors as well as their authority and government.

From this example, we can see how the digital divide happened in factory scenes, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most SEZs workers are women who also take care of their children. Their children had to be schooled at home during the lockdown. How can those women manage their time and energy to assist their kids from the factory floor? They have to buy internet quota which is often not affordable. So, from the parallel reality, you can see how digital inequality emerges in factories. 

And, household debts. In 2022, a study looked at gender-based violence against women that occurred on and was done by online lender platforms. Before, during and after the pandemic, working-class women suffered from over-indebtedness, due to their limited access to formal access to finance, low wages, and lack of free public services available to them.

The narrative blames financially illiterate women who take out a loan supposed to be used for productive purposes and use the money in reproductive spending for household/family is a neoliberal bullshit. It is to maintain their economic ideology and make the ruling class run the world while millions of women are losing their livelihoods and trapped in household indebtedness. 

What is one book that has stuck with you?

This is a classic book. The accumulation of Capital by Rosa Luxemburg. We really want to review the book and analyse it to understand the trend of digitalisation and how it impacts women’s labour rights. 

What should we be paying more attention to in 2023?

The rise of authoritarianism and the role of big tech companies and their connection to union busting, and digitalisation and its impact on women’s labour rights and the future of work.