Labour Day, or International Workers’ Day, has been celebrated on May 1 since the late 19th century. The celebration of Labour Day began in the Haymarket affair, in Chicago in the US in 1886, when workers protested against long working hours and poor working conditions. The Haymarket affair saw the spread of labour protests across other parts of Europe. As a result, European governments started to formally recognize Labor Day.
Over the years, Labour Day has been commemorated with protests, strikes, and celebrations all over the world. While some may lament that Labour Day has lost its politically charged meaning in more recent times, every year on May 1, workers still continue to take the opportunity to campaign for their rights. 2017’s Labour Day saw workers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, amongst other Asian countries, rallying for better working conditions and higher wages.
The continuation of labour protest movements indicate that there still remains room for improvement in workers’ rights around the world. Strides have indeed been made in the labour rights movement in areas such as the freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, improvements in occupational health and safety, as well as the elimination of forced labour and child labour. Nonetheless, enforcement on issues continues to be a problem in many countries, especially in the Asia Pacific region. In fact, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, the region formed an estimated 66.4% of the global number of people in modern slavery.
The fisheries sector has been identified as a sector associated with modern slavery, with low cost migrant workers highly vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking. In particular, the plight of forced migrant labor on Thai fishing vessels in Southeast Asian waters has been the subject of reports and media investigations The International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests that the lack of training, inadequate language skills of these migrant workers, along with the lack of enforcement of safety and labour standards, make them especially vulnerable.
A fishing boat along the coast of Koh Samet, an island in Thailand’s eastern Gulf Coast. Image by Philippe Gabriel, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
This issue of forced labour has not gone unnoticed, various stakeholders increasing efforts to combat forced labour in the lecture. In particular, the ILO launched the SEA Fisheries Project in April 2017 aiming to reduce human trafficking in the fishing sector by strengthening coordination of existing national and regional anti-trafficking efforts in Southeast Asia (see the project brief here). Other NGOs such as Veritė engage in advocacy and research to promote ethical labour practices in the sector, and develop resources and approaches for governments and companies to help them resolve and prevent labor abuses (see Verite’s list of resources and research on forced labour in fish and shrimp production in Southeast Asia here).
While the labour issues in Southeast Asia’s fisheries sector remain far from resolved, Labour Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the efforts that have gone into fighting for labour rights from the past to present.