Michele Ford’s Year in Reflection

In our latest Year in Reflection, we posed our questions to Michele Ford, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, and co-author of Labor and Politics in Indonesia (Cambridge University Press, 2020) with Teri Caraway.

In 2022, which workers’ struggle in Asia would you like to highlight?

I am really impressed with the efforts of labor activists in and from Myanmar, who are keeping the struggle alive in very difficult circumstances.

Before 2011 unions weren’t even legal in Myanmar. In just eleven years they not only established a presence but even started making some headway, especially in the garment industry. This wasn’t easy with successive governments that weren’t really interested in supporting labor rights.

But a degree of opening up in the industrial relations system served a purpose for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) insofar that international observers saw labor rights as something of a bellwether for Myanmar’s commitment to democracy in the 2010s.

Things of course became incredibly difficult after the 2021 coup. Union offices have been ransacked and union activists have been arrested and terrorized, with key figures forced underground or into exile. But even though the current situation poses a fundamental threat to unions’ very existence, workers and labor activists continue the fight.

What is one labor issue you have been focusing on?

This year I’ve been focusing on gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the Cambodian construction sector.

On construction sites, women and men labor in very poor working conditions, often without a formal contract, let alone access to the protections promised to them under Cambodian law. The fact that many of them live onsite or in employer-provided accommodation adds to the risks of GBVH that they (and especially women) face in the course of their working day.

My team is interested in documenting those risks, and identifying opportunities for unions, their international allies and the government to take steps to reduce the prevalence of workplace GBVH.

What is one trend that we should be watching in 2023?

A key trend that I think we all should watch in 2023 is the success or failure of campaigns to create legal pathways for workers in the gig economy to unionize.

This matters around the world, but Asia is a particularly important site, I think, as a test case for whether such pathways can be created outside the Global North. Despite all the problems associated with gig work, in many Asian contexts it serves as a vector of formalization of jobs that were previously firmly in the informal sector by providing an employer-like target for collective action.

It is true that the power imbalance is massive. What’s more, it’s exacerbated by the reach and immediacy of the technologies that power global platforms. At the same time, however, I think we already have evidence that collective action is much more likely to have an impact in the gig economy than in most parts of the informal sector.