Researched Works

First Pro-Labor Policies in Industrializing Asia

As industrialization spread towards Asia, some countries like Japan promoted worker-friendly policies. What are these early labor welfare measures in Asia?

Kaoru Sugihara and Tirthankar Roy’s Labour Intensive Industrialization in Global History (1999) describe Asia’s proto-industrialization phase as a peasant family economy. People adopted a gender-based division of labor, as well as used labor-intensive technologies. Not all countries though pursued industrialization at the same time nor did they use a single approach.

Rising industrialization of Asia - How Japan and other countries responded

Carl Mosk (2004) credits Tokugawa's autarky from 1600 to 1868 as the era that caused Japan's early urbanization. This development contributed to the country's eventual industrialization. The Meiji Restoration Period (1868-1912) ushered in more changes, as Japan became more open to western influences. The government sent scholars abroad, with the goal of using their education for the country’s development. Thus, Japan’s modernization was due to domestic investments in industries and infrastructures, as well as to the use of improved technologies and productivity schemes.

In comparison, China built light industries and pursued export expansion and economic liberalization. Likewise, Korea relied on exports and high-value added sector. Southeast Asian countries (e.g., Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia) adopted varying policies, ranging from import-substitution and export promotion to capital-intensive heavy industries and decontrol strategies. Middle East states capitalized on their abundant oil resources, resulting in petroleum-related industries. In contrast, British-controlled India went through de-industrialization. Later on, as Kalpana Kochhar, et al. (2006) explain, it employed skill-intensive manufacturing and higher-than-average scale industries.

Pro-labor policies in early Japan and other Asian states

With its early industrial progress, Japan leads the pack of Asian countries in implementing early welfare provisions for workers. Gregory J. Kasza (2006) details that under the Tokugawa regime, the Japanese government gave feudal warlords (daimyo) land grants, while their defenders (samurai) received rice stipends for their services. The lands, however, were handed back to Emperor Meiji during his reign.

During the 1870s, employers were made liable to accidents in state-owned industries. This measure was followed by injury benefit for miners and sailors in the 1890s, as well as by the Factory Law for companies with 15 or more workers in 1911. The Factory Law is the earliest in Japan’s social insurance system, according to the Social Security Programs throughout the World: Asia and the Pacific, 2006 (2007).

However, as Kasza (2006) notes, Japanese state workers were already given pension and partial health coverage through mutual aid societies starting in 1907. On the other hand, employees from medium-large firms were granted health insurance in 1922. They likewise gained pension benefit in 1941 – a time when Japan engaged in World War II (1939-1945) to pursue the imperial path taken by Europe and the United States. In spite of this, more citizens received health insurance until a universal coverage was instituted in 1958. A universal pension scheme was offered a year later.

Next to Japan, Asia-based areas of the defunct Soviet Union launched their first welfare laws. Armenia and Azerbaijan had sickness and maternity benefits in 1912, while Kyrgyzstan, along with Armenia, had its unemployment benefit in 1921. Both measures were launched 10-25 years earlier than Japan’s.

Drivers of humane workplace in early Asia

The efforts of humane political leaders, as well as the creation of the International Labor Organization (ILO), helped implement succeeding social security statutes in Asia. Moreover, a convergence of cultures, including religion and education influenced by western forces, also contributed to the promotion of these human-friendly policies. Also significant were the struggles of various groups, including organized labor, to achieve political independence from colonial powers, which was the case for the Philippines.


Andressen, Curtis A. 2002. A Short History of Japan: From Samurai to Sony (A Short History of Asia series). Australia: Allen & Unwin. (accessed June 22, 2009).

Asian Productivity Organization. 2007. Socially Sensitive Enterprise Restructuring in Asia: Country Context and Examples. Nikolai Rogovsky and Randall Schuler (eds.). (accessed June 21, 2009).

Author unknown. 2002. Meiji Period (1868-1912). (accessed June 21, 2009).

Clingingsmith, David and Williamson, Jeffrey. 2004. India’s De-Industrialization under British Rule: New Ideas, New Evidence. Working Paper 10586. National Bureau of Economic Research. (accessed June 21, 2009).

Daquila, Teofilo C. 2004. The Economies of Southeast Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc. (accessed June 21, 2009).

Kasza, Gregory J. 2006. One World of Welfare: Japan in Comparative Perspective. New York: Cornell University Press. (accessed June 21, 2009).

Kochhar, Kalpana et al. 2006. “India’s pattern of development: What happened? What follows?”. IMF Working Paper. (accessed June 21, 2009).

Mosk, Carl. 2004. “Japanese industrialization and economic growth”. In EH.Net Encyclopedia. Robert Whaples (ed.). (accessed June 8, 2009).

Social Security Administration (SSA) and International Social Security Association (ISSA). 2007. Social Security Programs throughout the World: Asia and the Pacific, 2006. (accessed June 8, 2009).

Sugihara, Kaoru and Roy, Tirthankar. 1999. Labour Intensive Industrialization in Global History: Asian Experiences and Comparative Perspectives. (accessed May 31, 2009).

Written by Leann Zarah (

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