In the Global North, changes in the organisation of work and employer strategy have rendered existing unions less powerful and put unionism out of reach for large groups of workers. In Asia, the situation is even more complex. Many Asian countries have large informal sectors, unregulated by labour law and unrepresented in the formal industrial relations system. In addition, large numbers of workers are employed on an informal basis within formal sector industries.

In many cases, Asia’s unions have ignored these precarious workers. This is perhaps not surprising since many of the region’s labour movements are weak from decades of repression and sometimes struggle to represent the interests even of their ‘core’ membership. Informal associations, many of them supported by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and even the international labour movement have tried to fill the gap. Yet – despite their evident weaknesses – unions remain an important part of the puzzle by virtue of their role in national industrial relations systems and the international bodies that set labour standards.