The Impact of Trade Liberalisation on Decent Work: The Case of the Philippine Sugar Mill Workers
The impact of trade liberalisation on the structure and nature of work is a divisive topic. On the one hand, there are those who support trade liberalisation by pointing to the potential employment generation (Kelly & Prokhovnik, 2004) and the upward pressure on workers’ skills levels (Mander & Goldsmith, 1996). In contrast, there are those who remain critical and argue that trade liberalisation results in job losses, downward pressure on working conditions and limited opportunity for unskilled workers (Solidar, 2007c; 2007e). Impacts that indicate an improvement in decent work are often framed as ‘social upgrading’ while any deterioration in decent work is seen to result in ‘social downgrading’. Research in this field, while growing, tends to assess the impact of trade liberalisation from a national, sectoral or organisational perspective, while little is known of the workers’ perspective. Adopting a worker perspective, this thesis examines the impact of trade liberalisation on decent work among sugar mill workers in the Philippines. Using a qualitative single case study method, the study draws on the changes in employment and work conditions in a sugar mill when liberal trade policies were introduced. The study uses both primary and secondary data. Primary data were taken from representatives of the workers, the employer and the government sector at national and workplace levels. The study highlights the trade-offs between indicators of decent work and finds that decent work can be influenced by institutional frameworks in addition to employment strategies. Trade liberalisation resulted in numerical flexibility where permanent workers were reduced while contractual workers were hired as cost reduction measures and a way of avoiding labour laws that are protective of permanent workers. A shift of employment demand toward semi-skilled or skilled workers was also found. Thus, this research directs the attention of future research on trade liberalisation and decent work towards more vulnerable workers such as contractual workers. Furthermore, it highlights the need to increase the coverage of legislative protection to include non-permanent workers. Lastly, it challenges the Philippine government to increase the skill level of its workforce to facilitate employment generation.