Mar 19, 2008, Democracy and Human Rights Seminar

Teri Caraway, right, discusses labor rights while Meredith Weiss, Research Fellow at EWC in Washington, looks on at the East-West Center in Washington on March 19, 2008.



(WASHINGTON, DC) March 19 – What is the state of collective labor rights and labor market flexibility in Asia today?  Although new labor laws have provided stronger guarantees for the collective rights of workers in some countries in the region, labor regulations in most countries fall far short of international labor standards. Dr. Teri L. Caraway, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, discussed the state of labor market flexibility in Asia during a Democracy and Human Rights seminar at the East-West Center in Washington, explaining how labor law reforms in the region, contrary to world trends, have seldom introduced greater market flexibility—and in many cases have actually perpetuated inflexibility.


Caraway’s research on labor politics involved the design of a labor index that accounts not only for labor laws but also for labor rights in practice, and the enforcement of those laws. The index penalizes countries where enforcement is weak, discounting points in countries with stronger laws but poorer levels of enforcement. Using the index across a time horizon of several years, Caraway found that that while there have been substantive improvements in collective labor laws in Asia over the past several years, only one country, South Korea, has actually experienced increased labor market flexibility. Laws appear to be growing more protective in Indonesia, Thailand, and China, with other Asian countries demonstrating no significant change in their labor laws over the past decade.


Caraway also identified common legal constraints on freedom of association and weaknesses in legal protection of collective bargaining.  The former included ambiguity in the right to organize (such as in Indonesia), administrative hurdles, and restriction on political activities, while the latter included having no legal right to bargain (as is the case in Laos) or to strike. Using a variety of indexes that measure de facto collective labor rights and individual rights, Caraway found that the only two countries in Asia that scored relatively well in both categories were South Korea and Indonesia. She concluded that while collective labor laws in Asia may have improved over the past 20 years—due largely, perhaps, to democratization—labor laws as a whole are not becoming more flexible, as enforcement of these laws continues to be weak.  The impact of weak enforcement on collective labor rights and labor market flexibility, in fact, is far worse today than it was 20 years ago, as the impact is magnified when laws are stronger.