In Search of a Living Wage in Southeast Asia

12 December 2017

Purpose – Debates over the definition, processes and outcomes of minimum and “living” wages are heated and often politically contentious in garment-producing countries. Internationally, there have been various initiatives to promote and support the implementation of a living wage for workers in labour-intensive manufacturing, ranging from corporate-driven social responsibility and multi-stakeholder initiatives to the long-standing living wage campaign of the global unions. One prominent regional initiative is the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA). The purpose of this paper is to assess its reach and effect in Southeast Asia. Design/methodology/approach – A living wage campaign is assessed with reference to Indonesia and Cambodia, two important garment manufacturing countries in Southeast Asia. The paper draws on data collected in interviews with garment manufacturers, brand representatives, trade unionists and labour NGO activists, including members of the AFWA Steering Committee in Indonesia and Cambodia, complemented by a systematic review of documents and reports produced by the AFWA. Findings – As the paper shows, despite a series of initiatives, the Asia Floor Wage has failed to gain traction in Cambodia or Indonesia. This is so, the paper argues, because national economic, political and institutional contexts are the primary drivers of the strategies and priorities of constituent organisations, governments and industry stakeholders. In the absence of robust local and regional coalitions of trade unions, efforts towards a common and coordinated regional approach to living wages are thus unlikely to gain traction. Originality/value – To a large extent, the literature on the concepts and practices associated with the living wage has focussed on developed rather than developing countries. This paper extends the literature by providing a systematic examination of a transnational wage campaign in developing Asian countries.