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Communism, Cold War and Commodity Chains: Southeast Asian Labor History in a Comparative and Transnational Perspective

  • Ulbe Bosma (a1)


The geographical term “Southeast Asia” dates from the 1930s, and came to denote a topic for academic studies in the early days of the Cold War. As such, it includes Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indochina, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Southeast Asia has become thoroughly incorporated in the global economy over the past 150 years; first, as a producer of commodities, and later, as a supplier of cheap garments and electronic components. Under Dutch colonialism and British hegemony—the latter established by the conquest of Burma and the imposition of free trade on Siam and the Philippines in the 1850s—Southeast Asia was turned into a key provider of commodities for the industrializing countries. During high colonialism, from 1870 to 1930, the region became increasingly intertwined, via Singapore as the central port and through the role of mainland Southeast Asia as the rice basket for the plantations of maritime Southeast Asia. After the Second World War, the region was the world's most violent frontier of containment for communist expansion. In recent decades, Southeast Asia has become integrated in global commodity chains as a producer of cheap industrial goods, often as a subcontractor for more advanced economies, such as those of Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and later on, Southeast China.



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1. For a discussion of the term “Southeast Asia,” see Berger, Mark T., “Decolonisation, Modernisation and Nation-Building: Political Development Theory and the Appeal of Communism in Southeast Asia, 1945–1975,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34 (2003): 421–48, here, 423.

2. The Philippines ratified the convention on December 29, 1953, Indonesia on June 9, 1998, and Cambodia on August 23, 1999. (consulted on May 22, 2018).

3. This convention was ratified by the Philippines on December 29, 1953, by Indonesia on July 15, 1957, by Malaysia on June 5, 1961, by Singapore on October 25, 1965, and by Cambodia on August 23, 1999. Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam have not yet signed. (consulted on May 22, 2018).

4. Eviota, Elizabeth Uy, The Political Economy of Gender. Women and the Sexual Division of Labour in the Philippines (London, 1992), 69; Mohamad, Maznah, The Malay Handloom Weavers: a Study of the Rise and Decline of Traditional Manufacture (Singapore, 1996); van Nederveen Meerkerk, Elise, “Challenging the de-industrialization thesis: gender and indigenous textile production in Java under Dutch colonial rule, c. 1830–1920,” Economic History Review 7 (2017): 2019–1243; Irene Nørlund, “Textile Production in Vietnam 1880-1940: Handicraft and Industry in a Colonial Economy” (PhD diss., Copenhagen University, 1994), 190–203.

5. Keck, Margaret E. and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists beyond Borders. Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY, and London, 1998).

6. Amarjit Kaur, Wage Labour in Southeast Asia Since the 1840's: Globalisation, the International Division of Labour and Labour Transformations (Basingstoke [etc.], 2004), 29, 34, 134.

7. Jomo, K. S. and Todd, Patricia, Trade Unions and the State in Peninsular Malaysia. (Kuala Lumpur, 1994), 20.

8. See Lees, Lynn Hollen, “International Management in a Free-Standing Company: The Penang Sugar Estates, Ltd., and the Malayan Sugar Industry, 1851–1914,” The Business History Review 81 (2007): 2757, here, 47, 49.

9. Ramos, Elias T., Philippine Labor Movement in Transition (Quezon City, 1976), 15.

10. Virginia Thompson, Virginia, and Wilfrid Benson, Labor Problems in Southeast Asia. With a preface by W. Benson (New Haven, CT [etc.], 1947), 103.

11. Thompson, Labor Problems in Southeast Asia, 239.

12. Bosma, Ulbe, The Making of a Periphery. How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor (New York, 2019), 155.

13. Clark, Victor S., Labor Conditions in the Philippines – Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor (Washington DC, 1905), 721905, here 842–46. See also Carroll, John J., “Philippine Labor Unions,” Philippine Studies 9 (1961): 220–54, here, 225.

14. Richardson, Jim, Komunista. The Genesis of the Philippine Communist Party, 1902-1935 (Quezon City, 2011), 1416, 18.

15. Bosma, The Making of a Periphery, 155.

16. Ramos, Philippine Labor Movement, 19.

17. Bosma, Ulbe, Karel Zaalberg. Journalist en strijder voor de Indo (Leiden, 1997), 147–51.

18. For the membership figures, see Ingleson, John, In Search of Justice. Workers and Unions in Colonial Java, 1908–1926 (Oxford, 1986), 160, 231.

19. Stenson, M. R., Industrial Conflict in Malaya. Prelude to the Communist Revolt of 1948 (London, etc., 1970), 9.

20. Gamba, Charles, “Labour and Labour Parties in Malaya,” Pacific Affairs, 31 (1958): 117–30, here, 119.

21. Beresford, Melanie and Nyland, Chris, “The Labour Movement of Vietnam,” Labour History, 75 (1998), 5780, here, 60; Trân, Angie Ngoc, Ties That Bind; Cultural Identity, Class, and Law in Vietnam's Labor Resistance (Ithaca, NY, 2018), 2627.

22. Thompson, Labor Problems, 52.

23. Piraphol Tritasavit, “Labor Policy and Practices in Thailand: A Study of Government Policy on Labor Relations, 1932–1976,” (PhD diss., New York University, 1976), 66.

24. Tritasavit, “Labor Policy,” 88, 146.

25. Poeze, Harry A., Tan Malaka. Levensloop van 1897 to 1945 (The Hague, 1987), 258; Richardson, “Komunistas,” 80; Carroll, “Philippine Labor Unions,” 229.

26. For fingerprint registration in Java, see for example Ingleson, John, “Labour Unions and the Provision of Social Security in Colonial Java,” Asian Studies Review, 24 (2000): 471500, here, 478; For the fingerprint registration in Sumatrasee National Archive, Deli Maatschappij, inv. no. 344, “Dactyloscopisch Bureau der D.V en A.V.R.O.S 1925–1950,” 3.

27. Ingleson, “Labour Unions,” 471, 490; Ingleson, John, Workers, Unions and Politics. Indonesia in the 1920s and 1930s. (Leiden/Boston, 2014), 271.

28. Ingleson, “Labour Unions,” 495.

29. Carroll, “Philippine Labor Unions,” 231.

30. Richardson, “Komunistas,” 92–93.

31. Doeppers, Daniel F., “Metropolitan Manila in the Great Depression: Crisis for Whom?The Journal of Asian Studies 50 (1991): 511–35.

32. Wurfel, David, “Trade Union Development and Labor Relations Policy in the Philippines,” ILR Review 12 (1959): 582608, here, 586.

33. Ramos, Elias T., “Labor Conflict and Recent Trends in Philippine Industrial Relations,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 15 (1987): 173–97; Carroll, “Philippine Labor Unions,” 234.

34. Wurfl, David, “Trade Union Development and Labor Relations Policy in the Philippines,” ILR Review 12 (1959): 582608, here, 584; Carroll, “Philippine Labor Unions,” 237; Ramos, Philippine Labor Movement, 8, 59.

35. Trân, Ties that Bind, 39.

36. See Brocheux, Pierre, “L'implantation du mouvement communiste en Indochine française: le cas du Nghe-Tinh (1930–1931),” Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine 24 (1977): 4977; Brocheux, Pierre, “Le prolétariat des plantations d'hévéas au Vietnam méridional: aspects sociaux et politiques (1927–1937),” Le Mouvement social, 90 (1975): 55–86, here, 7980; Del Testa, David, “Vietnamese railway workers during the revolutionary high tide,” South East Asia Research 19 (2011), 787816; Del Testa, David W., “Workers, Culture, and the Railroads in French Colonial Indochina, 1905–1936,” French Colonial History, 2, Colonial French Encounters: New World, Africa, Indochina (2002): 181–98.

37. Stenson, , Industrial Conflict in Malaya. Prelude to the Communist Revolt of 1948 (London, 1970), 89.

38. Ariffin, “Women and Trade Unions,” 84; Stenson, Industrial Conflict in Malaya, 14–15.

39. Jomo and Todd, Trade Unions, 74, 77.

40. Fong, Leong Yee, “Labour Laws and the Development of Trade Unionism in Peninsular Malaysia, 1945–1960,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 69 (1996): 2338, here, 27–28.

41. Fong, Leong Yee, “The Impact of the Cold War on the Development of Trade Unionism in Malaya (1948–57),” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 23 (1992): 6073.

42. Dalley, F. W., “The Prospect for Asian Trade Unionism,” Pacific Affairs, 24 (1951): 296306, here, 296, 305; Leong Yee Fong, ‘The Impact of the Cold War,” 67–68.

43. Beresford and Nyland, “The Labour Movement of Vietnam,” 61–62.

44. Jomo and Todd, Trade Unions, 22–23; Dalley, “The Prospect for Asian Trade Unionism,” 301; Leong Yee Fong, ‘The Impact of the Cold War,” 71; J. Norman Parmer, “Trade Unions in Malaya,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 310, Current Issues in International Labor Relations (1957): 142–50, here, 143–44.

45. Ariffin, ‘Women and Trade Unions,” 86; Jomo and Todd, Trade Unions, 43.

46. Jomo and Todd, Trade Unions, 54.

47. Jomo and Todd, Trade Unions, 151.

48. Carroll, “Philippine Labor Unions,” 238.

49. Carroll, “Philippine Labor Unions,” 243.

50. Wurfel, “Trade Union Development,” 582, 592–93, 605.

51. Ramos, Elias T., “Growth of Collective Bargaining in the Philippines, 1953–74,” Indian Journal of Industrial Relations, 14 (1979): 559–68, here, 560.

52. Ramos, “Labor Conflict,” 180.

53. Bosma, Ulbe, The Sugar Plantation in India and Indonesia. Industrial Production 1770–2010. (Cambridge, 2013), 223–25; See also Brown, Colin, “The Politics of Trade Union Formation in the Java Sugar Industry, 1945–1949,” Modern Asian Studies 28 (1994): 7798.

54. Ford, Workers and Intellectuals, 25; SOBSI itself claimed a membership of two and a half to three million in the late 1950s, but this figure has been contested. See Hindley, Donald, The Communist Party of Indonesia, 1951–1963 (Berkeley, 1964), 135.

55. Kerkvliet, “Workers’ Protests,” 175; Tran, Ties that Bind, 71.

56. Beresford and Nyland, “The Labour Movement of Vietnam,” 68; Chan, Anita and Norlund, Irene, “Vietnamese and Chinese Labour Regimes: On the Road to Divergence,” The China Journal 40 (1998): 173–97, here, 174–75.

57. For the Vietnamese case, see Beresford and Nyland, “The Labour Movement of Vietnam,” 63, 65, 66.

58. Parmer, “Trade Unions in Malaya,” 148.

59. Leggett, Chris, “Trade unions in Singapore. Corporate paternalism,” in Trade Unions in Asia. An economic and sociological analysis (New York, 2008), 108, 111.

60. Gamba, “Labour and Labour Parties in Malaya,” 125.

61. Berger, “Decolonisation,” 433.

62. Crinis, in Crinis and Vickers, Labour in the Clothing Industry, 26.

63. Ford, Workers and Intellectuals, 53.

64. See Christie, Kenneth, “Illiberal Democracy, Modernisation and Southeast Asia,” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory 91 (1998): 102–18.

65. Ford, Workers and Intellectuals, 35.

66. Andrew Brown, Bundit Thonachaisetavut, and Kevin Hewison, “Labour Relations and Regulation in Thailand: Theory and Practice,” Southeast Asia Research Centre, Working Papers Series No. 27. (City University of Hong Kong, 2002), 6.

67. Ong, Spirits of Resistance, 144–45, 148; Jomo and Todd, Trade Unions, 153.

68. McKay, Steven C., “The Squeaky Wheel's Dilemma: New Forms of Labor Organizing in the Philippines,” Labor Studies Journal 30 (2006), 4647; Ramos, “Labor Conflict,” 188.

69. See McKay, Steven C., “Hard Drives and Glass Ceilings: Gender Stratification in High-Tech Production,” Gender and Society 20 (2006): 207–35.

70. Jomo and Todd, Trade Unions, 30; Ariffin, Rohana, “Women and Trade Unions in West Malaysia,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 19 (1989): 7894, here, 81.

71. Ong, Spirits of Resistance, 153; See also Celia Mather, “Industrialisation in the Tangerang Regency of West Java: Women Workers and the Islamic Patriarchy” (Working Paper, University of Amsterdam, 1982).

72. See McKay, “Hard Drives and Glass Ceilings,” 207–235; See also Wolf, Diane Lauren, Factory Daughters: Gender, Household Dynamics, and Rural Industrialization in Java (Berkeley, 1992), 178.

73. See Pansapa, Textures of Struggle.

74. Ford, Michele, “Continuity and Change in Indonesian Labour Relations in the Habibie Interregnum,” Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 28 (2000): 5988, here, 68, 70; Silvey, Rachel, “Gender Geographies of Activism: Motherhood, Migration, and Labour Protest in West Java, Indonesia,” Asian Journal of Social Science 31 (2003): 340–63, here, 349, 355; See Rebecca Elmhirst, “Labour Politics in Migrant Communities.”

75. Neureiter, “Organized Labor,” 1079.

76. Ford, Workers and Intellectuals, 75.

77. Ford, “Continuity and Change,” 73.

78. See Neureiter, Michael, “Organized Labor and Democratization in Southeast Asia,” Asian Survey 53 (2013): 1063–86.

79. See Ramos, Elias T., “Labour Policy Change and Its Impact on Trade Union Roles in Singapore and the Philippines: A Comparative Study,” Indian Journal of Industrial Relations 19 (1984): 331–46.

80. According to the ILO in 1997, union density among wage workers was 3.4 percent in Indonesia, 38.2 percent in the Philippines, 13.4 percent in Malaysia, and 4.2 percent in Thailand. In Thailand, union density was just 2.6 percent in private enterprise and 60.94 percent in the government sector. Charoenloet, Voravidh, Ativanichayapong, Napaporn, and Wanabriboon, Pan, The Impact of Trade Union Solidarity Support Organisations in Thailand 1993–2002 (Bangkok Chulalongkorn University Political Economy Study Center, 2004), 9. The report was kindly made available to the author by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation.

81. Neureiter, “Organized Labor,” 1074–76. According to the study by Charoenloet, Ativanichayapong, and Wanabriboon (The Impact of Trade Union Solidarity, 27), the Thai labor movement stood isolated from other social actors and was itself in need of outside help rather than being able to play a vanguard role.

82. Neureiter, “Organized Labor,” 1074–76.

83. Brown et al., “Working Paper,” 5; Pangsapa, Piya, Textures of Struggle. The Emergence of Resistance among Garment Workers in Thailand (Ithaca, NY, 2007), 27, 31; Yukongdi, Vimolwan, “Trade unions in Thailand: declining strength and influence,” in Trade Unions in Asia. An economic an sociological analysis, ed. Benson, John and Zhu, Ying (New York, 2008), 216–35.

84. See Pansapa, Textures of Struggle, chapter 2, 80–129.

85. Pansapa, Textures of Struggle, 31, 126, 131, 148, 151.

86. Crinis and Tran (in Crinis and Vickers), 91; Ford, “Continuity and Change,” 77; Charoenloet, Ativanichayapong, and Wanabriboon, The Impact of Trade Union Solidarity, 20.

87. See Ford, Michele, “Learning by doing: trade unions and electoral politics in Batam, Indonesia, 2004–2009,” South East Asia Research 22 (2014): 341–57; Vedi R. Hadiz, “The Indonesian Labour Movement: Resurgent or Constrained?” Southeast Asian Affairs (2002): 130–42.

88. McKay, “The Squeaky Wheel's Dilemma,” 41–63, here, 44.

89. McKay, “The Squeaky Wheel's Dilemma,” 53–54.

90. Ford, Michele, Workers and Intellectuals: NGOs, Trade Unions and the Indonesian Labour Movement (Leiden, 2009), 46.

91. D. O'Rourke and G. Brown, “2000, Beginning to Just Do It: Current Workplace and Environmental Conditions at the Tae Kwang Vina Nike Shoe Factory in Vietnam,” November 8, 2000, online at: (consulted on May 24, 2018).

92. Isaaac, Joe and Sitalaksmi, Sari, “Trade unions in Indonesia. From state incorporation to market orientation,” in Trade Unions in Asia. An economic an sociological analysis, ed. Benson, John and Zhu, Ying (New York, 2008), 236255; Ford, “Continuity and Change,” 71.

93. See Torm, Nina, “The Role of Trade Unions in Vietnam: A Case Study of Small and Medium Enterprises,” Journal of International Development 26 (2014): 207–21.

94. Chan and Norlund, “Vietnamese and Chinese Labour Regimes,” 178–79.

95. Trần, Angie Ngọc, “Through the Eye of the Needle: Vietnamese Textile and Garment Industries Rejoining the Global Economy,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 10 (1996): 91.

96. Ngọc Trần, “Through the Eye of the Needle,” 83–126, here, 84.

97. Gereffi, Gary, “The Organization of Buyer-Driven Global Commodity Chains: How U.S. Retailers Shape Overseas Production Networks,” in Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism, ed. Gereffi, Gary and Korzeniewicz, Miguel (Westport, CT, and London, 1994), 95121.

98. Kerkvliet, “Workers’ Protests,” 168–69.

99. Wang, “Asian Transnational Corporations,” 50.

100. Kerkvliet, Benedict J. Tria, “Workers' Protests in Contemporary Vietnam (with Some Comparisons to Those in the Pre-1975 South),” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 5 (2010): 162204, here, 162–63.

101. Kerkvliet, “Workers’ Protests,” 177.

102. Ngoc Tran, “Alternatives,” 436.

103. Kerkvliet, ‘Workers’ Protests,” 166; also, see Tran, “Alternatives.”

104. Nuon, Veasna and Serrano, Melisa, Building Unions in Cambodia. History, Challenges, Strategies (Singapore, 2010), 18, 71, 80, (consulted on May 24, 2018).

105. Nuon and Serrano, Building Unions, 50–51.

106. See Kheang Un, “Cambodia in 2012: Towards Developmental Authoritarianism?” Southeast Asian Affairs (2013): 73–86; ILO, Cambodian Garment and Footwear Sector Bulletin, Issue 4, August 2016, (consulted on May 24, 2018); Gillian Kane, “Facts on Cambodia's Garment Industry, Cambodia Factsheet 1, Clean Clothes Campaign,”

107. Arnold, Dennis and Pickles, John, “Global Work, Surplus Labor, and the Precarious Economies of the Border,” Antipode 43 (2011): 1598–624.

108. Crinis, Vicki and Tran, Angie Ngoc, “Migrant workers in the clothing industry: networking in Christian spaces.” in Labour in the Clothing Industry in the Asia Pacific, ed. Crinis, Vicki and Vickers, Adrian, (London and New York, 2017), 8096.

109. Arnold and Hewison, “Exploitation global supply chains,” 184.

110. Arnold and Pickles, “Global Work,” 1608, 1610.

111. See Thongyou, Maniemai and Ayuwat, Dusadee, “Lao migrant workers in Thailand,” in Transnational Migration and Work in Asia, ed. Hewison, Kevin and Young, Ken (London and New York, 2006), 5774.

112. Arnold and Pickles, “Global Work,” 1613; Pollock, Jackie and Aung, Soe Lin, “Critical times: gendered implications of the economic crisis for migrant workers from Burma/Myanmar in Thailand,” Gender & Development 18 (2010): 213–27. See also Arnold, and Hewison, , “Exploitation in global supply chains. Burmese migrant workers in Mae Sot,” in Transnational Migration and Work in Asia, ed. Hewison, Kevin and Young, Ken (London and New York, 2006). 165–90.

113. See Campbell, Stephen, “Cross-ethnic Labour Solidarities among Myanmar Workers in Thailand,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 27 (2012): 260–84.

114. Arnold and Pickles, “Global Work,” 1618; Arnold and Hewison, “Exploitation in global supply chains,” 180.

115. Arnold and Hewison, “Exploitation in the global supply chains,” 169; Brown, Andrew and Hewison., KevinEconomics is the Deciding Factor: Labour Politics in Thaksin's Thailand,” Pacific Affairs 78 (2005): 353–75, here, 362–63, 368.

Communism, Cold War and Commodity Chains: Southeast Asian Labor History in a Comparative and Transnational Perspective

  • Ulbe Bosma (a1)


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