Solidar Suisse – Enlargement of Asian engagement

Solidar Suisse – a Swiss NGO founded by the social democratic party and the Swiss trade union confederation in 1936 – will enlarge its current engagement in China towards a broader engagement with regional networks in Asia and projects in Cambodia.

By Zoltan Doka and Sanjiv Pandita

Solidar Suisse launched its first engagement in China in 2011 by supporting Hong Kong based NGOs active in China. Their intervention focussed on issues that included labour rights issues, legal counselling and promotion of health and safety standards. During this period, Solidar Suisse undertook (unsuccessful) advocacy efforts aimed at the inclusion of a social clause in the free trade agreement signed between China and Switzerland in 2014. Swiss Solidar also launched two major awareness raising campaigns in Switzerland on labour rights in the toy and kitchenware manufacturing industries, in 2015 and 2016.

By learning about the complex nature of labour issues in China and Asia, Solidar Suisse and its partners decided in 2015 to a new approach to tackle labour rights issues in Asia. Capital mobility and global supply chain continue to dominate the world of labour. Since global brands’ promises to improve labour standards are often mere lip service and workers’ empowerment and experiences need to be shared across borders, Solidar Suisse decided to expand its support to regional networks and local projects in Cambodia, while maintaining its engagement in China.

The overall approach is to work on selected issues relevant across Asia as well as in Switzerland. These issues are: Palm oil industry, garment sector and asbestos. Palm oil is used in a wide range of products consumed in Switzerland. There are presently many engagements on the negative environmental impact of palm oil production. However, there are not many initiatives to tackle labour issues in this industry. Forced labour, the absence of social security, the exploitation of migrant workers and bad occupational and health conditions are some of the characteristics of this industry.

The garment industry relies on cheap labour and labour conditions are often very poor. This industry is dominated by international brands claiming that, through their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies, they upgrade the labour standards gradually. Unfortunately, reality shows a very different picture. Tazreen Fire, Rana Plaza and continued mass fainting of workers in Cambodia are reflective of the failure of such practices.

Asbestos is one of the biggest killers of workers in Asia. Despite being banned in most of the countries in the west, it continues to be used in most parts of Asia exposing millions of workers and communities to potential hazards. The ban of asbestos faces huge resistance by the industry and the governments of many Asian countries. Furthermore, workers and communities suffering from Asbestos related diseases receive little or no support.

In all of the above mentioned sectors, access to knowledge, dissemination of information, organising of workers and lobby and advocacy at various levels are vital to contribute to the improvement of labour rights and respect for workers. In parallel Solidar Suisse will lobby and campaign in Switzerland on these issues to sensitize and change consumer behaviour, to influence foreign trade policy of the government and to hold transnational cooperations accountable in their supply chain.

Solidar Suisse is supporting and guiding its partners through its regional cooperation office in Hong Kong as well as staff from its headquarters. This programme is endorsed by the Swiss Development Cooperation, the national agency for foreign public aid.