Several contributions in this blog have discussed different forms of transnational labor rights activism, transnational modes of governing working conditions in global supply chains and their local consequences. In all these contributions, the structural reasons for a core concerns of workers – their low income (“poverty wages”) have not been discussed. In a very recent paper (“expanding repertoires of labor: multi-scalar counterstrategies in the Asian garment industry” which will be presented at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin on the 8th of October 2012), Jeroen Merk and Sabrina Zajak discuss the reasons behind poverty wages across Asian countries, reasons which make multi-scalar strategies of labor necessary to counter these problems. A brief summary shall be given next.

Most of the consumer goods such as textiles, clothing, toys, or electronics are produced in Asia in countries such as China, but also Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh or India. While labor intensive production plays a major role for the economic growth in those countries, workers themselves most often do not profit from the economic uprise of their countries. Many labor rights abuses are continuously highlighted by international unions such as the International Union Confederation or transnational labor rights networks such as the Clean Clothes Network. Although there are several country specific differences we argue that there are at least three commonly shared reasons.

First, while most Asian governments set minimum wages, these typically fail to provide enough income to maintain a family of four above the nationally defined poverty level. In order to attract investment, many governments set legal minimum wages below the subsistence level with severe consequences for workers and their families which often have to life below the poverty line (for a good overview on minimum wages by country see

Second, despite the existence or rise of minimum wages, workers often do not receive its actual payment. Wage defaulting has many faces: workers are being cheated on their minimum wages; tricked on overtime pay; denied benefits like travel and food allowances; dismissed because the employer refuses to respect legal rights to maternity leave; or robbed of severance payments when plants shut down. That these domestic rights violations remain undetected has several reasons: State inspections are rare; workers themselves don’t know how to claim their rights. Management found different creative ways to deceive inspections or the controls and monitoring of global buyers.

Third and probably most importantly, the level of unionisation is very low and there is a near absence of collective bargaining between workers and employers. Even if unions are widely present, as in Cambodia or Indonesia, they often lack the bargaining power to negotiate adequate wages and benefits. The lack of bargaining power is one of the core reasons for poverty wages.

We identify at least eight reasons for the lack of power, which are to be found in the country-specific conditions as well as the way garment production is organized globally. Country specific reasons include legal restrictions, anti- union strategies of management or the lack of resources and experience of workers and their representatives. Global reasons include the spatial fragmentation of production, which makes the construction of transnational solidarity difficult and the economics of global supply chains, which raises the time and price pressure on production. It is important to keep these reasons in mind as they help to explain the rise and forms of different multi-scalar strategies of labor. Transnational labor rights activism is often a response to these challenges, aiming at strengthening workers and their organizations domestically.

Everyone who wants to discuss wages and transnational wage struggles in Asia with us is welcome to join the debate in the politics from below workshop at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin on 8th of October 2012 5-7 pm. Further details follow the link here.

Jeroen Merk and Sabrina Zajak