In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Labor Politics in East Asia

  • Introduction
  • Overview and Comparative Studies
  • Historical Formation of the Working Class
  • Workers under Developmental Regimes
  • Labor, Social Movements, and Democratization
  • Labor and Partisan Politics
  • Labor and Gender
  • Labor Migration
  • Labor and Political Economy
  • Labor in China: From Communism to Capitalism
  • Labor and Neoliberal Globalization
  • New Forms of Labor Resistance
  • Labor Data and Online Resources

Political Science Labor Politics in East Asia
Yoonkyung Lee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0164


Labor politics is understood as various modes and processes of collective action taken by workers and their organizations to shape their workplaces, industry, national economy, and political outcomes. This process inevitably involves the interactive dynamics between organized labor, employers, and the government. In the study of East Asia, a region that has attracted more scholarly attention for its economic performance and geopolitical conflict, the subject of labor issues and labor politics has received less academic scrutiny. Yet, serious intellectual works have been produced to bring back labor to our analytical horizon in order to build systematic knowledge of East Asian society and political economy, especially against the prevailing and simplified view of Asian workers as a productive and docile workforce. These studies investigate the historical formation of the working class; industrial workers’ lived experiences under developmental authoritarianism; the nexus of organized labor, social movements, and democratization; gendered dimensions of labor processes; increasing labor migration in Asia and its sociocultural implications; and workers’ mobilization in the context of structural reform and neoliberal globalization. Although theoretical, methodological, and disciplinary orientations vary, these analyses shed light on the agency of workers, the historical legacies of colonialism and authoritarian politics in shaping the collective identity of the working class, various modes of contentious mobilization and organizational alliances, and workers’ achievements and failures in the drastically changing political-economic structure. The literature on East Asian labor politics identifies how geopolitics set the Asian workers on a separate trajectory compared to the working-class movements in Europe and Americas, highlights how the political-economic structure hindered or promoted the formation of labor movements, traces why organized labor failed to settle as a significant social force in democratic politics, problematizes the persistent gendered hierarchies and inequalities in and out of workplaces; and raises possibilities of new forms of labor mobilization and alliances against rising inequality and fragmentation in neoliberalized economies.

Overview and Comparative Studies

Starting from Deyo 1989, scholars have studied Asian labor more seriously and systematically by including labor in their analytical equation of East Asian political economy, society, and politics. These studies highlight the shifts taking place in labor institutions against concomitant political and economic transformations in the region. Frenkel 1993 brings together a study of labor unions in nine Asian countries, while Perry 1996 brings back the importance of labor in the study of East Asian politics and society. Candland and Sil 2001 and Kuruvilla and Erickson 2002 examine organized labor’s response to economic globalization from a comparative perspective. Asia Monitor Resource Center 2003 and International Labour Organization 2005, respectively, are surveys that describe the changing conditions in the labor market and labor laws in Asia.

  • Asia Monitor Resource Center. Asia Pacific Labor Law Review: Worker’s Rights for the New Century. Hong Kong: Asia Monitor Resource Center, 2003.

    Provides an overview of labor laws in thirty countries in Asia.

  • Candland, Christopher, and Rudra Sil, eds. The Politics of Labor in a Global Age: Continuity and Change in Late-Industrializing and Post-Socialist Economies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/0199241147.001.0001

    A compilation of case studies that examine how organized labor negotiated its fate against concurrent moves of democratization and globalization in late industrializing countries. Includes chapters on China, Japan, India, and Pakistan, and helps to situate the Asian cases in a broader comparative perspective by juxtaposing them with experiences in Latin America and eastern Europe that underwent similar complexities.

  • Deyo, Frederic C. Beneath the Miracle: Labor Subordination in the New Asian Industrialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

    A groundbreaking work that brings Asian labor into a systematic analysis against a burgeoning literature on Asia’s political economy that predominantly focuses on miraculous economic growth. Through a comparative study of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, Deyo demonstrates different labor-control strategies adopted by these developmental states.

  • Frenkel, Stephan, ed. Organized Labor in the Asia-Pacific Region. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1993.

    Offers a study of labor unions in the context of changing economic and political conditions in nine countries in the Asia-Pacific (Australia, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand).

  • International Labour Organization. Labour and Social Trends in Asia and the Pacific 2005. Bangkok: International Labour Organization, 2005.

    An overview of the labor market, employment, wages, poverty, and labor unions in Asia and the Pacific.

  • Kuruvilla, Sarosh, and Christopher L. Erickson. “Change and Transformation in Asian Industrial Relations.” Industrial Relations 41.2 (2002): 171–227.

    Overviews changes in Asian industrial relations in the 1980s and 1990s through a comparative case study of Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, and China. Argues labor relations in these economies changed toward increasing numerical and functional flexibility of the labor market.

  • Perry, Elizabeth J., ed. Putting Class in Its Place: Worker Identities in East Asia. Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, 1996.

    A rare contribution that highlights the importance of social class in understanding East Asia. Includes chapters that analyze the identity formation of the working class in China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

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