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Miserable conditions, pitiful wages fuel Asia boom
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By Elizabeth Pisani
623 words
11 May 1993
Reuters News
(c) 1993 Reuters Limited

HONG KONG, May 11, Reuter - While businessmen boast of Asia's economic success, many of the workers who have helped build it slave away in miserable conditions for pitiful wages.

As the bodies nearly 180 workers were removed from the charred rubble of a toy factory near the Thai capital on Tuesday, labour activists hoped the incident would concentrate attention on the plight of sweatshop workers.

Even in Hong Kong, where workers are better paid than in most Asian countries, many work in buildings that are unhealthy at best, death-traps at worst.

"Most of the factories are in multi storey buildings which are often 24 floors high and sometimes you have 16 different factories on one floor," workers rights activist Chan Kam-hong said on Tuesday.

Chan, general secretary of the Association of Industrial Accident Victims, said factory corridors in the British colony were often blocked by stocks and the few fire exits were locked by employers afraid of thieves breaking in.

There is no shortage of rules and regulations governing pay, health and safety, but the laws are often ignored.

In Indonesia, parliament last year passed a comprehensive social security act obliging employers to provide accident and health insurance. This joins a panoply of laws dictating holidays, minimum wages and the like.

Yet many workers producing high-priced sports shoes and flashy clothes for export to Japan and the West are taking home far less than the dollar a day decreed by law.

Several industrialised countries, led by the United States, have laws that penalise imports from countries that do not meet basic standards for workers. In practice, these are scarcely ever invoked, because industrialised nations do not want to discourage vibrant economic growth.

The World Bank has warned against raising workers' salaries in Bangladesh from the current minimum of US$14.35 a month, saying they are already high compared with the rate of labour productivity. Many Bangladeshi workers were striking on Tuesday for a raise in the minimum wage to US$23 a month.

Swiss-based multinational Nestle is being investigated by Sri Lanka's Labour Department after workers complained of ear and lung damage because of poor conditions in the Nestle factory, a spokeswoman for the Ceylon Mercantile Union said.

With the world's largest population, China has sucked in unskilled production from countries where living standards and wages are rising.

Making money is more important than maintaining safety standards, local commentators have complained, and more than 15,000 workers died in Chinese industrial accidents last year.

The abundance of workers in most parts of Asia is at the root of their troubles, unionists say. With millions of jobless or underemployed to replace them if they make trouble, workers are likely to put up with the grimmest of conditions.

"There is no point in discussing issues like pollution and factory safety when millions of unemployed are waiting in the flanks to find jobs. They are prepared to work under any condition," said Bombay trade union leader Datta Samant.

Most at risk are children, employed in their hundreds of thousands across Asia.

A 1991 survey in Pakistan found 50,000 children working as bonded labourers in rural areas, sold into virtual slavery by parents who cannot pay off debts.

Troops deployed in the country's southern Sind province recently found 250 men women and children who had been working as slave labour for a feudal landowner for more than 15 years.

An Indonesian packaging factory owner was jailed last year for locking up several children under 14. Police freed the children after soldiers tracked down a girl who had been missing from home for three years.

(c) Reuters Limited


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