Yesterday I attended the Asian Consortium for Social Policy conference hosted by King Prajadhipok’s Institute at the Government Centre at Laksi. It was an interesting occasion and I was pleased to have been invited to participate. Here is conference organizer Aj Dr Thawilwadee Bureekul giving her presentation as part of a panel on comparative results on social quality across Asia.
One of the principal means by which state management of rapid economic development has been attempted in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) has been the creation and maintenance of special economic zones (SEZs), which are specific geographic areas in which different laws and regulations take effect. The purpose of SEZs, which come in a variety of different forms, is to encourage domestic and international investment in specific areas to promote mainly export-oriented manufacturing. They have been created in large numbers in Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan Province of China and are being built across Cambodia, Laos and now Myanmar. Unfortunately, a large proportion of such investment projects have predicated on low labour cost competitiveness, in which mostly low value-added products are made in large numbers to compete in markets on the basis of price alone. Low labour costs are perpetuated by two principal means: drawing people into the industrial sector from the agricultural sector and repression of workers’ rights by state-mandated agencies in the areas of rights to collective bargaining, association, free speech and meaningful democratic representation. Workers have also been crowded into dormitory accommodation and living styles which often attract paternalistic management styles. Some SEZs have become associated with pollution emissions and causing other negative impacts on the physical environment and on local stakeholders. Construction of new has also been associated with the forcible clearance of land and the resettlement of villagers from places that they may have held for generations. These issues are balanced, of course, by the provision of new jobs and better income-generating opportunities for people, families and communities drawn into the world of markets and consumption. SEZs in the GMS are being increasingly drawn together by the large-scale creation of the Asian Highway Network, in addition to investment by domestic governments and by capital from Chinese corporations and the state. The creation of these linkages will have additional changes on the economic geography of the region and of the distribution of the factors leading to uneven development. Further changes are also anticipated to arise from 2015’s ASEAN Economic Community, which is due to facilitate greater cross-border movement for skilled workers in some employment categories while further enabling the economic integration of the region into what it is planned will be a seamless production zone. These changes and developments are all predicated on economic rather than social or human bases. People must adapt themselves to the spread of capitalist creative destruction and what Polanyi described as the Great Transformation. This paper seeks to identify the social and human implications of the spread of SEZs across the GMS and seeks to draw together conclusions that lead to recommendations for public policy that will reduce the risks that people will face as a result. In doing so, it is recognized that there is little if any prospect of economic considerations being removed from primacy in development planning in the foreseeable future.
Keywords: Greater Mekong Subregion, labour rights, social policy, special economic zones
The full paper appears in the proceedings, which look like this.