International Workers’ Day may trace its origin to the late 19th century, but the values and ideals that underpin it are as relevant in 2013 as they have ever been.
While the day originated to mark the labour traditions of Western Europe and North America, the sense of injustice and opportunity that inspired it are just as present in Southeast Asia today.
These issues are at the very core of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) mandate and are central to its work in this region.
Countless men and women around the world continue to work without even the most basic guarantees for their safety and wellbeing. Obvious examples come from the horrific workplace disasters that have claimed hundreds of lives this year alone in South Asia and other parts of this region.
But, away from the spotlight of the news programmes, many of the region’s vulnerable workers face such risks of injury and death every day.
Informal workers are amongst those particularly vulnerable, not only to workplace accidents but also to low wages, long working hours, inadequate dispute resolution mechanisms and a lack of the most basic labour rights.
Such workers typically have minimal social protection and often do multiple jobs, yet remain stuck in poverty, barely able to support their families.
In most of Southeast Asia there is a growing recognition that tackling these issues is vital to meeting national development goals. Almost all of these workplace accidents could be prevented if recommended standards for occupational safety and health were implemented effectively.
Progress is being made, through inspection services and stronger legal frameworks. It is absolutely imperative that we speed up this progress, and policy makers must make this a priority.
Strengthening freedom of association and collective bargaining are other vital components of this strategy.
Social dialogue and collective negotiations involving trade unions and employers’ organisations can bring significant benefits, not only to workers but also for economic development in general by supporting fairer income distribution, reducing inequality and more robust labour market governance.
Southeast Asia’s rapid economic growth has enormous potential to support people’s aspirations for decent work and a decent life. But this will not happen automatically.
The region’s economic dynamism will not be translated into social progress if the right policies are not in place and the right changes in approach not made.
For example, we should start to measure the success of an economy not by the rate of economic growth, but by the number of decent jobs that it produces and by the well-being of its population.
It means ensuring that growth does not come at the expense of environmental degradation or rising inequality.
At a global level it means ensuring that the ILO’s work on employment and social protection is fully reflected and prioritised in the global development agenda that follows on from the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
On this International Workers Day, we must dedicate ourselves to a new era of social justice, make sure that these opportunities are not wasted, so that Decent Work for All can be a reality in Southeast Asia.
Maurizio Bussi is the Director of the ILO Decent Work Technical Support Team for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific. He is also responsible for ILO’s activities in Thailand, Cambodia and Lao PDR.