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Regional organising and the struggle to set the Asia floor wage

A global production system demands a global response from organised labour.

Neil Howard (oD): An unresolved question in labour activism regards whether or not possibilities for North-South solidarity exist, be they with more traditional groups or with more marginalised groups in either constituency. Some activists suggest that such solidarities are impossible or unlikely to bear fruit. What is your take on this question?

Anannya Bhattacharjee: I'm really opposed to such bland binaries, which are ahistorical and frankly out of date. With migration being one of the biggest phenomena of our times, we must understand that the Global North is being shaped by very new populations who are soon going to be either the largest minorities or even majorities in their countries. And we must always be accurate, so we can't just say ‘the Global North is this’. I'm really shocked when well-known academics say that. They have the money to travel, and they have the money to do some research. If that is what they see when they go to those countries, then they must be mingling with the wrong kind of people.

It's a middle-class complex, actually, to forget to trust the people.

I'm also against being self-righteous about the Global South: that because we're in the Global South everything we do is right. There's a lot of fake work, there are a lot of elites in the Global South who don't really care about justice, and there are problems in our movements. The labour movement is divided everywhere, as are all movements. I think the bottom line is to build alliances and build fresh perspectives. I'm not saying that history is not important, but what is very important is the present. We must always be refining our philosophies and perspectives daily. You have to be self-reflective, which is lacking in a lot of spaces. As long as we stay present, as long as we continue to redefine and be open to change, which is what the world is about, I think the work will take care of itself.

The other thing I would like to say is that some of the biggest radicals don't trust the people. Some so-called radical leaders will say, ‘this is what the working class is and this is what they think’. I don't know about that. Check in sometimes, you know? I'm not saying that one should give in to spontaneity – I'm an organiser, so I believe in organisations and institutions – but it is important to trust the people. I myself often forget that. It's a middle-class complex, actually, to forget to trust the people.

Neil (oD): Can you give a couple of positive examples of emerging organisations that are pushing supply chain governance in more progressive directions?

Anannya: Sure. Let me give a very local example. In the global supply chain, it’s very important to be globally connected, so while I may be involved in a struggle in a particular factory, we have to know not just about that factory and its management but also who is buying the goods from the management. The lead firm is responsible for the conditions the workers face, and is also responsible for the constraints the factory management might face. It’s very important to know the lead firm and the global supply chain, and to have colleagues and comrades in all these different layering countries.

What I'm going to say now hasn't happened in recent times because the factory struggle we participated in put an end to it. There was a case here in which workers in a factory workers unionised and locked the gate. A labour contractor was brought in with guns and sticks to beat up the workers, and they kidnapped a one of them and took him away. We did a hunger strike there, and the police had to bring back the worker in 14 hours. I was told at the time that in these places, when a worker is kidnapped, you don't expect to ever see him again. I couldn't let this happen on my watch, it was unbelievable to me. Anyway, I'm told that that rarely happens. The police were in collusion with the labour contractor in breaking the union, and the buyer was a British company called Marks and Spencer.

Sam Sherratt/Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Our colleagues in the UK, Labour Behind the Label, got involved. At that time, we did a huge global campaign, and we are currently in a pretty historic legal case that we are still pursuing with the workers. We are expecting positive results, but none of this would have happened if we hadn't used the global connections. What got the labour department to really move were the global connections and the effects of so-called bad reputation. Since then, we have stopped that gross form of violence. I want to make clear that though things are improving, other forms of violence still go on. But that's a factory-level example. I wanted to use a local case because when I start to talk about international campaigns people tend to think that organisers who work on international campaigns don't do local work. I want to break these silos.

Neil (oD): Could you speak a little more about the Asia floor wage in specific, and how a regional approach there found success?

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance is another successful campaign. Ten years back, wage was not even on the agenda of the garment global supply chain. Wage was always avoided and brands could get away with saying "we are paying living wages" meaning they were paying the nation's minimum wage, which we know is poverty-level and not a living wage. Consumer activists in Europe told us that even when they told the brands that living wage must be paid, the brands would say, ‘the Asians are not asking for it’, or ‘we don't know what it is, so that's why we don't pay it’.

It is very important that the value of labour be recognised and made numerically intelligible.

A bunch of us who were working in garment began to think about wages, about the impossibility of negotiating wages higher than the minimum wage due of the threat of relocation of brands. That led to thinking that we need a regional approach, that the national approach was not going to work because countries in Asia have their own inner regional competition and labour was turning into a divisive factor within that competition. We were told that you can’t unify, that is wasn’t possible to come up with a regional wage. They would ask, “how can you come up with a number from different countries?” We did it through a process of meeting with trade unions in different countries, which took about three years. It wasn’t a funded process; we would be invited to a conference somewhere and take advantage to meet local people. So it was a political process, and that’s how this began.

With the Asia floor wage, workers can see what, at the minimum, they should be paid for a global supply chain production. It is very important that the value of labour be recognised and made numerically intelligible, and the Asia floor wage did that. There were a lot of attacks from brands against it. We took about two years just touring, we were called into various meetings, and now the Asian floor wage is considered to be an international and credible benchmark. It may not be something people want to pay, but it shows what a living wage should be; it serves as a reference point.

To us that's a success, because the living wage has become a centre stage. Brands are continually being asked why they're not paying living wage, or if they are, they are on the defensive. That to me is a success. However, the ultimate success is when workers get it. To that end, we are kind of transitioning from alliance-building and campaigning to a bargaining mode. In the coming years, what we would like to see enforceable binding agreements with a negotiated time within which a living wage ought to be paid. We are not asking them to pay it overnight; we are not unrealistic. We are saying that we want it within a time-bound period, and that we will work to help ensure it goes to the worker's pocket.

I know there are critics out there who say that it is an abstract campaign, that wage is abstract. They don't know workers. Wage is the first thing people talk about. They don't even talk about being slapped or kicked. They will first talk about the wage they get. Those who say wage is an abstract concept are nuts, honestly. I heard that yesterday, so I was very disturbed by that. It is pretty much priority one for workers. That's why the campaign was formed, because it is priority one.

There are those who say they don't see any ground-level changes, but change is of different types. To me, one type of change is when a worker realises the value of his or her labour, and can tell the management what Asia Floor Wage thinks they should be getting. Of course, it is absolutely crystal clear that the story is not over until the workers get the wage. That is where the next stage of bargaining will come. But the fact that it took 10 years to get here tells you what a tough fight this is.

We have to work at different levels. It’s a struggle to do so. You have to be supported in many ways to work across levels, though I've seen people do it. When educated and middle-class activists are not working at multiple levels but working at one level and criticising other levels, that bothers me. It's limited. It's like the story of the three blind men who each touched a different part of an elephant and then had to guess what it was. They all guessed wrong, because none of them could get get the whole picture.

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