By Margie Mason
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Tens of thousands of low-paid workers took to the streets on May Day to demand higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions a week after a Bangladesh garment factory building collapse killed hundreds — a grim reminder of how lax safety regulations make going to work a danger in many poor countries.
Laborers in Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines and elsewhere marched and chanted en masse Wednesday, sounding complaints about being squeezed by big business amid the surging cost of living. Asia is the manufacturing ground for many of the world's largest multinational companies.
Thousands of garment factory workers in Bangladesh also paraded through the streets screaming for safeguards to be put in place and for the owner of the collapsed building to be sentenced to death.
In Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous country, tens of thousands of workers rallied for higher pay and an end to the practice of outsourcing jobs to contract workers, among other demands. Some also carried banners and protested against a proposed plan for the government to slash fuel subsidies that have kept the country's pump prices among the cheapest in the region.
A day earlier, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the country can no longer afford to pay to keep fuel prices low, given a growing budget deficit. The government is trying to iron out a plan that would help offset the increase among the poor who would be most affected by it. Most factory workers earn about $120 a month. In 2011, the subsidy bill ran close to $20 billion, the same amount the government plans to spend on infrastructure this year.
In the Philippines, an estimated 8,000 workers marched in the capital, Manila, to also demand better pay and regular jobs instead of contractual work.
"Wage increase, increase!" members of a coalition of workers' groups chanted while holding steamers that also called for lower food and utility prices. "Trash contractualization."
Some workers rallied outside the U.S. Embassy, torching a wooden painting stamped with the words "low wages" and "union busting" that depicted Philippine President Benigno Aquino III as a lackey of President Barack Obama.
Aquino on Tuesday rejected proposals that included salary increases and the exemption of workers' bonuses from taxes. Instead, he announced plans to equalize government and private sector workers' benefits, but also add a slight increase in contributions.
Workers' Party chairman Renato Magtubo assailed Aquino for offering "scraps meant for slaves."
Meanwhile, more than 10,000 Taiwanese workers also protested a government reform plan to cut pension payouts to solve worsening fiscal problems, saying the payout cuts reflect a longstanding government policy to bolster economic growth at the expense of workers' benefits and compromised workplace safety.
Analysts say the poor income level has forced many young Taiwanese to share housing with their parents and delay marriages.
In Cambodia, more than 5,000 garment workers marched in Phnom Penh, demanding better working conditions and a salary increase from $80 to $150 a month. About a half million people work in the country's $4.6 billion garment industry that makes brand name clothes for many U.S. and European retailers.
The garment industry has come under fire since an illegally built eight-story building collapsed last week in Bangladesh, bringing down five garment factories and killing more than 400 people. The collapse followed a garment factory fire in November when 112 people died.
A loud procession of workers wound through central Dhaka, waving the national flag and chanting "direct action!" and "death penalty!" while one participant vowed the deaths would not be in vain.
"My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless."