Reasserting Union Strength in Asia – Trade Unions in Transformation

Trade union power is often described as fading away under the pressures of globalized markets and closing civic spaces. A photo story from a conference with trade unions from Asia and Global Union Federations captures how unions nonetheless successfully reassert and restructure their power resources and how future challenges can be overcome.

Design: FES/Kawin Tadtiam

Globalized markets and closing civic spaces in many Asian countries make maintaining labour power increasingly difficult and put pressure on workers and trade unions. Nonetheless, unions constantly establish new ways to reassert their power resources and remain relevant, even in the rapidly changing economies in the region.

In order to shift the narrative about trade unions away from the depiction as victims of globalization and instead show that unions in fact do have power, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) has gathered remarkable trade union success stories from all over the world.  

These success stories, their underlying strategies and future challenges were the subject of a conference held in Singapore by FES, bringing together members of Global Union Federations, trade unions and research organisations from Asia for them to share their personal experiences and discuss mutual challenges. Together, participants explored how to best use their power resources, how to cross the divide between the formal and informal sectors and how to face the digital economy.

“Power is not a reality but a potential that needs to be activated,” said Dr Melisa Serrano, Associate Professor at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of the Philippines and Member of the Steering Committee of the FES project “Trade Unions in Transformation”, summing up the Power Resources Approach at the conference.

The approach, based on a paper by Klaus Doerre and Stefan Schmalz (link to study), emphasizes that trade unions are not solely subject to external developments but are able to make strategic choices by activating their different  power resources. The concept of structural, associational, institutional and societal power can help unions analyse their greatest strengths and identify areas that offer potential for increased union power.

The conference was part of the FES project “Trade Unions in Transformation” which aims at enriching the conversation about union revitalization and facilitating exchanges among trade unions. By focusing on labour’s power resources, FES offers a space to learn from each other and be inspired from positive experiences of struggles around the globe. FES has gathered 26 stories worldwide that show successful trade union transformation.

Read the stories of successful labour struggles and learn more about the project at the “Trade Unions in Transformation” webpage.

Our photo report from the “Trade Unions in Transformation” conference captures some of the ideas on power resources and innovative ways of trade union action that were discussed.

  • Around 70 participants took part in the FES conference “Trade Unions in Transformation” which was held at the Changi Village Hotel in Singapore over two days from 21 to 22 March 2018. The conference brought together Global Union Federations, trade unions and experts from Asia to exchange and discuss successful strategies for union power revitalization. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Six out of the 26 case studies gathered by FES show success stories of trade unions in Asia, among them a study on the ASEAN Service Employees Trade Union Council (ASETUC), a partner of the FES Asia Regional Office in Singapore, which hosted the “Trade Union in Transformation” conference. Pictured here is Ms Adrienne Woltersdorf, Resident Director of the FES Asia Office in Singapore, greeting the participants. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Conference participants taking part in the “ice breaker” game where they were asked to line up, giving an evaluation of how strong their union is, how female and how open to new ideas their leadership is, what the average age of their union members is and how many successful campaigns their union organized in 2017. Most participants estimated their unions to be rather young, open to innovative ideas and strong. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Participants writing down their thoughts on coloured cards answering the questions “If I had a wish for my union, what would it be?” and “What would I like to learn during this conference?” Many trade unions wished for an increase in membership, a stronger inclusion of women, youths and domestic workers in the organization and a strategic empowerment for union action. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • What are the sources of power for trade unions? The first part of the conference focused on introducing the Power Resources Approach, an analytical tool that can help unions identify their strengths and areas for potential improvement in power consolidation. Ms Prangtip Daorueng from Thailand passes the microphone on to Ms Sirijunyaporn Jangthonglang, Vice-President of the Federation of Thailand Automobile Workers Union (TAW), to allow her to talk about their campaigns. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • “Trade unions are relevant! Most trade unions are staunch supporters and practitioners of democracy,” says Mr Mirko Herberg, Head of the Global Trade Union Programme of FES and Director of the FES project “Trade Unions in Transformation”, pictured here as he conducts an introductory session on the Power Resources Approach before lunch on 21 March 2018. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Mr Nuon Veasna, Labour Consultant from Cambodia, engages in a discussion about policy recommendations and labour rights. One way to increase the sometimes strategically important relationship with government institutions can be the soft approach, a concept that relies on cooperation and incremental transformation as presented by Mr Satoshi Tamai, Director of Organising and Campaigning of the Union Network International Asia Pacific Region (UNI Apro). Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Mr Abdul Qadir, Programme Coordinator and Advisor at FES Pakistan, translates the session for Mr Muhammad Latif, Central President of the Labour Qaumi Movement in Pakistan. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Integrating the gender perspective and attracting youth participation in trade unions can strengthen unions’ associational power and enhance organizations’ self-reliance. Ms Jacqueline Park, Director of the International Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific, shared her organization’s strategy on how to ensure women’s participation in union action: “A mixture of gender quotas and bottom-up activism works well. In our work, we’ve tried to make sure there are avenues for strong activism of women where they can rise up their issues into the mainstream decision-making processes.” Ms Park hosts a table of participants during the “World Café” session. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Day two of the conference gave the Global Union Federations the opportunity to present their projects in a smaller setting to give deeper insights into union power in Asia. Here Ms Sarangua Byambajav, Project Manager at FES Mongolia, is taking a video of a table of Global Union Federation representatives presenting the results of the previous “World Café” session. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Mr Rusli Rusli from Indonesia takes the floor to speak about the challenges faced by his union, the Aerospace and Transportation Workers Union (SPDT). Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • We have to bring back the belief of workers in trade unions. It’s not enough to tell workers that they have rights. We have to exert our powers and remind of the critical role trade unions have to a company’s growth, which depends on the capacity of workers to improve their condition”, says Mr Christopher Ng, Regional Secretary of the Union Network International Asia Pacific Region (UNI Apro). Mr Christopher Ng speaks to his colleague Mr Satoshi Tamai at the back of the conference venue right after participating in the card survey. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Mr Anurag Shanker, Senior Advisor of the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), takes a coffee break and greets Ms Syeda Afsana of FES Bangladesh. The coffee break allowed the participants to gather their thoughts and prepare their dialogues for the next session through informal conversations. NASVI started making use of the ongoing digitalization to empower workers by training and preparing them for the digital economy, says Mr Shanker. “Demonetization in India affected street vendors, driving them into bankruptcy because there was no cash for a whole month. NASVI approached a mobile company to train workers to use digital payments. In three days, we trained 5000 vendors! People who are skilled can have an option. That’s why training must be a fundamental right for the worker,” he says. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • “Repression by authoritarian regimes of workers and trade unions, informalization of labour and global value chains are the three challenges in Asia that have contributed to declining union density” says Dr Melisa Serrano, Associate Professor at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of the Philippines and Member of the Steering Committee of the FES project “Trade Unions in Transformation”. Dr Serrano prepares for an interview set up by FES Regional Communications Coordinator Ms Mila Shopova. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Informal workers are often not regarded as part of the real workforce, so joining a trade union can help in gaining public recognition and paving the way for better labour conditions. Crossing the divide between informal and formal workers is essential and one of the biggest challenges for trade unions all over the globe. Mr David Spooner from the Global Labour Institute in the UK, speaks passionately about the Ugandan transport workers during the trade union stories of success session part one “Winning by Crossing the Divide”. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Mr J S Prasad, National President of the National Confederation of UNITES (NCU) from India, photographing the individual round table group discussion while Ms Anja Bodenmüller-Raeder from FES Berlin facilitates session on trade union success stories “Winning with Gender and Youth”, focussing on the impact of empowering women and young workers in and outside the union. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Mr Christopher Ng and Dr Melisa Serrano await the arrival of participants after lunch to engage in a “Fish Bowl” style discussion on how to empower unions to face the digital economy. The session is moderated by Ms Veronica Nilsson, Project Manager at the FES Asia Regional Office in Singapore. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Mr Sangam Tripathy, Assistant Regional Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Asia Pacific, explains how technology will displace human labour, citing examples of driverless trains and buses utilizing digital tools to find the most efficient routes for transport. “Technology can’t be stopped”, he says. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Ms Nisha Baniya, Advocate of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), speaks in the “Fish Bowl” discussion on how her union handles the digitalization of work. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Ms Kim Kyun-ran from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) during the “Power Resources and Unions in Asia” session where she speaks about her experiences on how to navigate precarization. In South Korea “most workers are independent contractors”, she says. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • During the “World Café” session on day two, five Global Union Federations presented their experiences of how trade union power changes in times of technological development, the soft approach to organizing workers and trade unions, the struggles of construction workers in Qatar and innovative strategies for building union power in the transport sector. Participants listen intently as each representative of five different Global Union Federations present the results of what their individual groups have discussed. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • “Crossing the divide” by organizing workers in non-standard forms of employment needs innovative forms of union action. Mr Apolinar (Dong) Tolentino, Regional Representative of Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), leading the second phase of discussion during the “World Café” session where participants explore different Global Unions Federations’ experiences. He explains how to successfully organise migrant construction workers in Qatar. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Mr Alexey Yusupov, Country Director of FES Myanmar, gathers the participants’ thoughts on what they have learnt by the end of the conference on a flip chart. The session comprised closing remarks and the motivation for future actions. It was moderated by Ms Adrienne Woltersdorf. Participants concluded among other things that unions worldwide already use their power as described in the Power Resources Approach, but that categorizing and strategically developing several powers with the help of a framework can increase unions’ strength substantially. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas
  • Ms Mary Jane Vargas, Organizer and Treasurer of the National Union of Building and Construction Workers (NUBCW) in the Philippines and Ms Rina Julvianty, Program Officer of FES Indonesia, are the last to leave the conference as they take a moment to admire the view at the Changi coast from the proximity of the conference room. Photo: FES / Amrita Chandradas


Carolin Grüning in currently an intern at the Singapore-based FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. For more information about the regional work by FES in Asia on trade, labour and social dialogue contact Veronica Nilsson, programme manager at the FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. 

FES in Asia

This website gives you regular updates of FES regional projects and activities across our Asia country offices.

It offers news articles on current debates and a range of research publications and policy briefs to download.  


  • 23.11.2020 | Gender and social justice | News

    How COVID-19 fuels the digital gender divide

    It is high time to act and re-imagine our digital future in Asia.

    more information

  • FES Afghanistan | Cooperation for Peace and Security | News

    On Shaky Grounds: COVID-19 and Afghanistan's Social, Political and Economic Capacities for Sustainable Peace

    A new report published by FES Afghanistan assesses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on socio-economic and political dynamics key to the country's...

    more information

  • | Gender and social justice, Climate change | News

    Further steps are needed to ensure a gender-just energy transition

    For the shift from fossil fuels towards renewable energies to be genuinely sustainable on both the environmental and social levels, it needs to be...

    more information

back to top