Southeastern Asia Trade Unions

by | August 19, 2020


According to the Malaysian constitution, workers have the right to organize. In reality, however, trade union rights are restricted. A first limitation is that employees only have the right to join a trade union that is linked to the industry in which they work. An even more important limitation is that many do not dare to join a trade union organization. It is common for employers to expose trade unionists to harassment and discrimination. A common form of trade union organization is so-called in-house unions, ie local business unions that are not affiliated with any union. This type of union is often toothless and in the hands of the employer.

The trade union movement is completely dominated by the largest federation MTUC (Malaysian Trade Union). MTUC has almost 400,000 members, which means that about twelve percent of the country’s workforce is unionized. The largest member union is the plantation workers’ union. However, the union membership rate is lower in the private industry, where only 3 percent of employees are members and only 2 percent are covered by collective agreements

According to, Malaysia is a country located in Southeastern Asia. There are about two million migrant workers in Malaysia, most of whom come from Indonesia. Migrant workers have the right to organize, but in reality there are very few union members. Many do not dare to join the union for fear that the employer will be dissatisfied. The trade unions have also been bad at advocating for migrant workers.



Central trade union : MTUC (Malaysian Trades Union). MTUC belongs to the World Trade Union ITUC.


The trade union movement is extremely fragmented. One explanation is that Philippine labor law complicates union organization. In order to be entitled to bargain, a trade union must have the support of a majority of the employees in the workplace. Every five years, new local union elections are organized. Competing organizations are trying to overwinter in the workplace and hope to win the next election. Another reason for the split is that some of the organizations are strongly party-politicized, the political split has therefore in turn contributed to a union split.

In the Philippines today, there are ten central trade unions, over 100 unions and over 10,000 registered local unions. The central trade union organization that states the most members is the right-wing Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP). The organization was formed in 1975 and was allowed to operate freely during the Marcos dictatorship. TUCP and the smaller central organization Federation of Free Workers (FFW) belong to IFS (International Trade Union Confederation).

In 1980, a new central trade union organization, the KMU-Kilusang Mayo Uno, was formed in protest against the fact that other trade unions did not dare to go against dictator Marcos’ anti-union legislation. The KMU became the second largest central organization, but it split in 1992. Those who broke out criticized the strong connection between the Maoist Communist Party CCP and the KMU. Pretty soon, however, the breakaways also came to go their separate ways. One grouping represents a more revolutionary line, another grouping stands for a more reformist line. From the breakaway group from the KMU, therefore, two new central organizations have been formed, the revolutionary National Confederation of Labor (NLC) and the reformist BMP.

Many attempts have been made to unite the divided trade union movement. Recently, the trade union central organization Sentro was formed. Several of the progressive trade unions from the private, public and informal sectors have gathered there. The backbone is the Alliance of Progressive Labor (APL), but Sentro also includes many other trade unions. Sentro differs from most other central trade union organizations in that it strives for all employees in a workplace to belong to the same trade union club. Another new initiative is Nagkaisa, a broader union network. The purpose is to organize joint actions and demonstrations. A major issue is the fight for safe and secure employment. The Philippine workforce consists of about 45 million people. Of these, between 30 and 40 percent are employed in agriculture. The trade unions have their base among people with employment in industry and the service industries. In total, the degree of organization is about five percent.

One reason why trade unions have difficulty growing is the ongoing repression. In the Philippines, there is a long history of the state and employers trying to shut down union work. The degree of repression has varied over different time periods. At the moment, there are several negative signs that indicate an increased repression against union work. In the autumn of 2019, union meetings for, among other things, bus drivers were attacked by the police. Several trade unionists have also been arrested. Sharan Burrow, Secretary-General of the Global Trade Union Movement ITUC, has sharply condemned anti-union policies in the Philippines.



Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) which together with the Federation of Free Workers (FFW) belongs to the world union ITUC. In addition, there is KMU-Kilusang Mayo Uno, National Confederation of Labor (NCL), Lakas Mangagawa Labor Center (LMLC), Alliance of Progressive Labor (APL). See also the Praply organization Sentro. In addition to this, there are a number of additional trade unions.


Thailand is one of 11 countries in Southeast Asia. The trade union movement in Thailand is weak and fragmented. There are nine registered trade unions in the country, but most are small and play an insignificant role in the labor market. In total, about three percent of the total workforce is unionized.

In some sectors and industries, however, the degree of trade union organization may be higher. In parts of the tourism industry, there are growing trade unions. There are also strong trade unions in several large industries, although the repression against the trade unionists is often fierce.

The country’s largest trade union central organization is the National Congress Private Industrial of Employees (NCPE), which reports that the organization has 150,000 members. The second largest is the State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC) with 50,000 members. The two small but talked about organizations are the Labor Congress of Thailand (LCT) and the Thai Trade Union Congress (TTUC), with about 25,000 and 8,000 members respectively. An acclaimed network of industrial unions is the Confederation of Industrial Labor of Thailand (CILT). CILT has about 150,000 members and one of the affiliates is TEAM, the country’s largest industrial association.

Conflicts over local trade union rights are common, especially in industry. Such conflicts have also occurred with Swedish companies established in Thailand. In 2013, among other things, 122 union members at Electrolux were laid off. The management at Electrolux claimed that the workers had taken part in an illegal strike, the local union representatives said on the contrary that they had been subjected to repression.



Central trade unions: National Congress Private Industrial of Employees (NCPE), State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC), Labor Congress of Thailand (LCT) and Thai Trade Union Congress (TTUC). All of these belong to the World Trade Union ITUC. In addition, there are several additional trade unions and the Confederation of Industrial Labor of Thailand (CILT).


The trade unions have undergone a cautious liberalization, but it is still dangerous to oppose the government or the big corporations.

Vietnam’s central trade union organization, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, VGCL, is of an old Eastern state character and has a dual structure. The central organization consists of 17 member unions but also has coordinating bodies in all 64 provinces. In some workplaces there are unions that do not belong to a union, but all are affiliated to a provincial body.

Coordination between VGCL and the state takes place via the Fosterländska Fronten, where both the union and other large popular movements are members. It is mandatory to become a member of the union and the membership fee is deducted directly from the salary. The right to strike is restricted, as is the possibility of conducting collective bargaining. Independent trade unions alongside VGCL are not allowed. At the local level and at the industry level, there has sometimes been some reform of VGCL’s focus, among other things as a result of projects in collaboration with the Swedish trade union movement. The new focus means, among other things, that greater emphasis is placed on membership recruitment and a functioning internal democracy.

There are many indications that the current trade union structure is failing to represent the interests of employees. Almost all strikes at foreign companies are organized directly by the employees, without the participation of the union. The problem for the union is that these conflicts have arisen in the emerging market-oriented labor market – but the union lacks experience of dealing with this type of new contradiction.

In recent years, the number of strikes has increased dramatically in the private sector and in particular in foreign companies. Most of the strikers are unionized and the strikes are mostly illegal. The triggering factor is usually low wages and extreme overtime. As a direct result of the strikes, the government has been forced to raise the statutory minimum wage. However, wage levels are still lower than in China, the powerful neighbor to the north.

However, VGCL still has its strength, especially in the old government workplaces, in the new private companies only ten percent of the employees are unionized. This means that the trade union movement is out of balance with the change in the labor market. It is the private sector that is growing – and that is where most conflicts take place.

As wages rise in the Chinese coastal regions, Vietnam has become an increasingly attractive country for foreign investors. Over the past decade, the number of people employed in the textile, footwear and electronics industries has grown rapidly. At the same time, thousands of Vietnamese workers leave the country every year to work abroad, especially in Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and Japan.



Trade Union Central Organization: VGCL (Vietnam General Confederation of Labor). VGCL belongs to the communist trade union international WFTU. In Vietnam, there is no member of the World Trade Union ITUC.


In 2001, the East Timorese trade union movement Konfederasaum Sindicatu Timor Lorosa’e (KSTL) was formed. KSTL has quickly developed into a strong and independent organization. In the initial phase, KSTL received extensive support from the Australian trade union movement.

Even before the formation of KSTL, there were independent unions for teachers and nurses. These are today part of KSTL. In addition, there are newly formed unions for transport workers, sailors, construction workers, trade employees, farm workers, public employees and security guards.

Knowledge in the country about internationally recognized trade union rights is poor. The country has recently ratified six of the ILO’s core conventions, but few employees are aware of their rights.

Unemployment in East Timor is around 20 percent. The largest part of the labor force is found in agriculture.

East Timor


Central trade union organization: Confederate Seamstress Sindicatu Timor Lorosa’e (KSTL). The organization’s English name and abbreviation is Timor-Leste Trade Union Confederations (TLTUC). KSTL / TLTUC does not belong to the World Trade Union ITUC.