Development for all: Protecting workers as economic integration sweeps Southeast Asia
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Development for all: Protecting workers as economic integration sweeps Southeast Asia

By Irene Pietropaoli

As corporate executives and political leaders prepare to gather in Jakarta for the World Economic Forum on East Asia focused on ‘Anchoring Trust in East Asia’s New Regionalism’, both governments and companies need to show they can be trusted to safeguard human rights.

ASEAN member states aim to integrate their economies and turn the region into a single market by the end of 2015.  This can provide opportunities for the region’s people, but only if accompanied by improvements in human rights protection.

At Business & Human Rights Resource Centre we reviewed 280 allegations of human rights abuses by companies operating in Southeast Asia. Seventy percent of the cases also involved repression by government authorities, for example violent crackdowns on workers striking for better conditions, or forced displacement of farmers from their land.

This demonstrates a worrying trend, whereby company activities often coincide with heavy-handed actions by governments – companies run a high risk of complicity in abuses if they do not put the right safeguards in place.  There is no shortage of guidance for companies that want to ensure they act responsibly: from the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, to tools framed for specific business sectors.

Often companies use controversial laws to protect their interests, as in the case of the human rights researcher and activist Andy Hall.  Using defamation laws, Thai company Natural Fruit brought six legal charges against Hall following his involvement in a report alleging labour abuses at one of the company’s factories.  His is just one of many cases of intimidation of rights defenders in Thailand and beyond.

Over half of the cases of reported abuses in Southeast Asia involve land rights issues, including forced evictions and loss of livelihoods.  These cases are most often linked to agribusiness, hydropower, extractives, and the development of special economic zones.  For example, the development of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, an industrial complex in Burma (Myanmar), has already displaced thousands of residents to substandard relocation areas.

Conditions for workers in Southeast Asia, especially migrant workers, are also deteriorating.  Often migrant workers come from other countries in the region, for example from Burma and Cambodia to Thailand or Malaysia.  Last month, a media investigation uncovered slavery-like practices in Indonesia’s fisheries, where hundreds of migrant workers, mostly from Burma, were kept in cages, forced to work and often beaten and tortured.

There are, however, encouraging changes underway. National Human Rights Institutions have accepted complaints brought by communities from other countries about companies’ operations.  Despite restrictions on freedom of expression and association, remarkable regional civil society coalitions are combining their resources to push for change.  Companies are also taking positive steps – including international brands that urged the Cambodian government to cease violence against striking garment workers, and some foreign companies investing in Burma that have taken “due diligence” measures to  avoid human rights abuses.

These examples are, however, still too rare.  ASEAN governments are falling short in their duty to protect citizens from rights abuses.  Too few companies are taking serious steps to ensure that they respect human rights in their operations.  Companies and governments should devote as much attention to addressing adverse impacts as they are to encouraging investment and improving the economy.

ASEAN governments’ lip service to “inclusive and sustainable growth” must now be accompanied by steps to put human rights at the centre of economic growth and integration.

About the author

Irene Pietropaoli is Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s  Yangon-based Southeast Asia Researcher. Follow her on Twitter @ipietropaoli