Workers in Special Economic Zones

Workers in Special Economic Zones

Special Economic Zones (SEZs) exist in many countries around the world. In the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), as elsewhere, the term SEZ generally refers to an area where national trade laws either do not apply or are relaxed, with the aim of attracting greater inward investment. SEZ regulations have often included restrictions on trade union activity, together with incentives for potential investors, such as exemptions on import duties for machinery and tax exemptions for fixed periods. In addition, SEZs frequently focus exclusively on export processing and factory-based production networks. Typically SEZs are located in border areas or at other times they occupy strategic locations in terms of accessing ports and other trade routes.

It has more often than not been the case that workers in SEZs have had to endure low wages, long working hours, substandard living conditions, lack of enforcement of occupational health and safety standards, and restrictions of their right to join or form independent trade unions. To highlight this, the Shenzhen SEZ in southern China’s Guangdong Province, which has been considered a model SEZ by many GMS countries, including Burma, has seen a series of high profile industrial conflicts in recent years. The city has grown from a small fishing village into a manufacturing hub of 8 million workers over the space of 30 years. This 132 Legally Binding phenomenal growth has been founded on a steady supply of cheap labour from rural China, who have by and large had to endure poor working conditions and low wages.

Looking at the experiences of long established SEZs such as Shenzhen, the pressure of competition in newly liberalised markets has tended to suppress wages and limit the unionization of workers to meet the demands of transnational corporations. This asserts negative pressure on labour rights and working standards. Although the GMS countries do not officially exclude workers in the SEZs from the protection offered under relevant labour laws, enforcement can become an issue when there is limited access by workers to form or join independent trade unions and/or for independent trade unions to freely operate in SEZs.

Despite such points of concern, a number of developments in the GMS offer a degree of optimism. For example, the improved logistics provided by ‘one-stop service centers’ in the Cambodian SEZs established along their borders, have streamlined administrative procedures for cross-border migrants, potentially a positive step for documented migrants. In addition, SEZs along Laos’ borders have become focal points for labour protection mechanisms, possibly leading to improved, and decentralised, labour protection procedures. Labour NGOs and migrant rights organisations should closely monitor labour conditions in the SEZs within the GMS to ensure that labour laws are implemented and that the independent trade unions can gain legitimate access.

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