Possibility of ASEAN Trade Unions: A Review toward Interest Group’s Role in ASEAN Integration Process

ASEAN is dubbed as the most successful regional organization in the developing world (Amitav Acharya, 2001). After forty years of existence, ASEAN successfully developed and maintained stability and peace in Southeast Asia, as well as mutual trust and confidence among both its members and ASEAN dialogue partners. ASEAN has also given its contribution in maintaining stability and peace in Asia Pacific through ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Since 1994 this ARF functioned as means for dialogue and information sharing on security issues in Asia Pacific.
ASEAN has determined its purpose and direction of cooperation, especially in accelerating regional integration, despite various discrepancies among the nations contribute to a myriad of dissimilar national interests. This determination reflected in ASEAN Vision 2010 that agreed upon in Kuala Lumpur in 1997 and Bali Concord II in 2003 regarding realization process of ASEAN Community with its three pillars that are political-security, economy and socio-culture. Furthermore, Heads of State or Government of ASEAN Member Countries agreed on ASEAN Charter in 2007 that serves as foundation of ASEAN Community.
ASEAN Community will come into force at 31 December 2015. One of the ASEAN Community Pillars is ASEAN Economic Community. AEC is the realization of the end goal of regional economic integration by 2015 of the ten economies of the ASEAN Member States. AEC will bring benefits to the peoples of ASEAN by creating a more conducive environment through transparency, predictability and consistency for businesses to flourish. This will in turn benefit consumers who will have access to a cheaper and wider range of goods and services and enjoy more extensive consumer protection.
However, this process of integration might affect the livelihood of ASEAN members’ citizen. The free movement of goods, services and people is perceived as threat to the way of live of respective member countries’ citizen. Some expert said that most of the member countries are not ready yet for implementation of ASEAN Community. Some said the problems go beyond trade issues, raising concerns about a potential rise in illegal trade and trafficking. There are also fears of major population shifts, as people move from poorer countries to richer ones and of shortcomings in customs and border control procedures.

ASEAN at Glance

ASEAN at Glance

ASEAN Dilemmas
Since its establishment until present day, ASEAN still has to overcome its obstacles for integration, such as diversity, organizational capabilities and mechanism, and lack of society involvement in its decision making process. Seong (2006) identified several dilemmas that hindered ASEAN become cohesive regional organization.
First dilemma is the difficulty faced by member states to agree on certain schemes and plans, such as economic integration proposals, due to discrepancies in perceived national benefits due to numerous differences in various fields. Second dilemma is identified as the difficulty of balancing between managing the region’s affairs while not interfering with the internal concerns of its members. This dilemma allegedly contributes to the limitations that hinder the growth of a strong community. Third dilemma will be the very principle of putting aside conflicting problems in order to prevent military confrontations makes the association powerless. They avoid the problems, hence leaving them unsolved.
The other dilemmas include the unrepresentative representation of the society at large and its inability to handle military matters proficiently. ASEAN’s meetings are based on Ad hoc, need basis while the regional organization model for ASEAN integration that is European Union (EU) follows a schedule and more institutionalized. There is also the dilemma of lack of common history that many of the European nations share.
As a whole, ASEAN’s diversity in various spheres impedes the member states from reaching a practical agreement on specific issues. The variety of nations does not lead to much benefit from economic integration either. The principles ASEAN adheres to also deter the way to development; in short, it needs to overcome various difficulties.
ASEAN and EU: a Comparison
Historically, European Union’s root lies in the Second World War. Europeans are determined to prevent such killing and destruction ever happening again. In 1951 under the Schuman Plan six European states (France, West Germany, Netherland, Belgium, Luxemburg and Italy) signed a treaty to run their heavy industries – coal and steel – under a common management as European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). In this way, none can on its own make the weapons of war to turn against the other, as in the past. Building on the success of ECSC, its member signed another treaty in 1957 to expand cooperation into other sectors, thus creating European Economic Community (EEC). After 35 years of existence and further expansion, EEC member states signed Maastricht Treaty and formed European Union (EU) in 1992. Nowadays, European Union is dubbed as a model for regional integration by most scholars.
Comparatively, the scope of power the organization has among its member nations is probably the most significant difference between EU and ASEAN. The European Union is more of a supranational organization that consisted of several states that are committed to a bigger entity and stands above all nations. On the other hand, ASEAN is not above other nations but is rather in the same level. Nations’ leaders convene to come up with a resolution or so, and the resolution serves as more a kind of guideline than an order.
Another lesson from EU is that of level of developments and political stability made European integration certainly easier that numerous other attempts elsewhere. Moreover, disparity of Human Development Index throughout European Union members is quite low.
The Role of Trade Union in European Integration
At the dawn of European integration, Suzuki (2008) found out that the Schuman Plan and the ECSC both functioned as an agreement between the ECSC institutions, the Member State governments, the trade unions as well as to industry owners in a lesser extent. The Schuman Plan ensured direct participation of union leaders in negotiations and decision-making processes at the European level, hence enabling post-war reconstruction of the six countries. In other words, the Schuman Plan was a European-wide “post-war settlement” in order to appease the trade unions and make them cooperate for economic growth. In exchange to agreeing with the policies and methods of economic growth, the unions of the six countries were promised direct participation in the decision-making processes of the most sensible issues concerning coal and steel industry: those were trade, investment, rationalization, productivity, housing of workers and other social policies, all which affected workers living and working standards.
The German, French and Belgian unions led the debate, arguing that the coal cartels functioned in protecting employment of coalminers, especially in marginal coalmines. If cartels were forbidden and free competition was suddenly introduced into the coal market, smaller coalmines would have to face rationalization and immediate closure, ending up in the workers losing their jobs. Therefore, it suffices to say that the trade unions as other interest groups played an important role in European integration process since its beginning in 1950s.

2012 European Union's Info graphic (source: ecommercenews.eu)

2012 European Union’s Info graphic (source: ecommercenews.eu)

Trade Union in ASEAN
There are two trade union councils in ASEAN that encompass almost all trade unions in ASEAN member countries. ASEAN Trade Union Council (ATUC) is a body of 18 national trade union centers and confederation across 9 ASEAN countries except Brunei Darussalam. Other than that, there is another trade union council called ASEAN Services Employees Trade Union Council (ASETUC) that has 64 affiliates in seven ASEAN countries.
While the ASEAN is preparing itself for the ASEAN economic integration in 2015, those organizations (ATUC and ASETUC) separately anticipates in making sure that social dimension will be integrated in the new Economic Community of ASEAN. Both organizations have been trying to uphold social dialogue as an essential tool to initiate discussion with the ASEAN and its Member States, both in the national and regional levels and urging that trade unions organization in ASEAN need to be considered as ASEAN Dialogue Partner.
Despite the pressure put in place by the organizations, both ATUC and ASETUC are not explicitly mentioned in ASEAN Charter as entities that neither associated with ASEAN nor declared as dialogue partner. This is comparably different with trade unions position in European Union, whereas the unions have their representative in European Economic and Social Committee. The Committee itself is one of EU advisory bodies that must be consulted when proposed legislation involves their area of interest.
Based on these facts, we can conclude that ASEAN need to be more inclusive in its decision making procedure that involves interest groups such as trade unions as much as possible. In turn, we can expect that ASEAN decisions will be more legitimate and easier to implement.
Policy-Making Analysis Approach toward Trade Unions Involvement in ASEAN Integration
Dye (2013) stated that policy studies often focus on how policies are made rather than on their content or their causes and consequences, and considers a series of activities, or processes that usually occur simultaneously, each one collapsing into the others within the political system. Different political actors and institutions-politicians, interest groups, lobbyists and legislators, executives and bureaucrats, reporters and commentators, think tanks, lawyers and judges may be engaged in different processes at the same time, even in the same policy area.
Furthermore, Dye suggests that interest groups may influence government policy in a variety of ways as follows:

  1. Direct lobbying, including testifying at committee hearings, contacting government offices directly, presenting research results, and assisting in the writing of legislation;
  2. Campaign contributions made through political action committees (PACs);
  3. Interpersonal contacts, including travel, recreation, entertainment, and general “schmoozing,” as well as the “revolving door” exchange of personnel between government offices and the industries and organizations representing them;
  4. Litigation designed to force changes in policies through the court system, wherein interest groups and their lawyers bring class-action suits on behalf of their clients or file amicus curiae (friend of the court) arguments in cases in which they are interested;
  5. Grassroots mobilization efforts to influence Congress and the White House by encouraging letters, calls, and visits by individual constituents and campaign contributors.

In regards with ASEAN decision making process, trade unions in the member states can employ tactics of “agenda setting”. Those tactics range from define their own interests, organize themselves, persuade others to support their cause, gain access to government officials, influence decision making, and watch over the implementation of government policies and programs and brought this decision into ASEAN. Trade unions council can also play its role in concerting unison efforts that ensure agenda setting in respective member countries. Therefore respective trade unions should empower themselves by educating members regarding the effect of regional integration and how to deal with it.
In conclusion, we hypothetically said that in order to enhance the integration process, ASEAN member countries need to put aside its own interest and start to reform ASEAN institution to be more institutionalized and democratic by involving in as much stakeholder including trade unions.
On the other hand, trade unions need to empower themselves and move in unison to urge respective government to involve them in ASEAN decision process. The dynamic that might occur for this empowerment will be analysed in this research project.



  • Seong Min Lee, 2006, ASEAN: Brief History and Its Problem, research paper, Korean. Minjok Leadership Academy, International Program, Fall 2006, downloaded from http://www.zum.de/whkmla/sp/0607/seongmin/seongmin.html on 10th January 2015;
  • Suzuki, Hitoshi, 2008, European Integration and Trade Unions: the Role of Interest Groups in Policy-Making of European Integration and its Impact on National Welfare States, Paper presented at the International Symposium “Implications for State Sovereignty of EU Integration in a Transnational World” 26 November 2008;
    http://europa.eu/about-eu/eu-history/index_en.htm accessed January 2015;
  • http://www.asean.org/ accessed January 2015
  • http://www2.asetuc.org/pages/news.php accessed January 2015
  • Dye, Thomas R., 2013, Understanding Public Policy, 14th Edition, Pearson Education, Inc., New Jersey

*This article reflects personal opinion of the writer, it does not necessarily reflect the view of the institution he works for.


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