5 findings: Business & human rights in Southeast Asia

Irene Pietropaoli and Annabel Short, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Despite widespread human rights abuses involving business in Southeast Asia there are some encouraging glimmers of progress

On 17 April we launched the briefing: “Development for all, or a privileged few?: Business & human rights in Southeast Asia”.

Governments in the region are promoting “inclusive, sustainable development for all” as they work towards the goal of becoming a single economic community by the end of 2015. 

But as the briefing finds, rapid investment is currently accompanied by widespread abuses of human rights, including harsh working conditions in the garment and agricultural sectors, and forced evictions to make way for special economic zones.

To attract investment, many governments are rolling back protections for workers and the environment and restricting the ability of civil society to operate.

We analyzed 280 cases of alleged human rights abuses by companies operating in Southeast Asia over the past 10 years.  In each case, the Resource Centre had invited the company to provide a public response.  Here are some of the findings:

70% of the cases of alleged abuses by a company also involved some form of direct repression by governments – for example forced evictions, or the violent clamp-down of worker protests. This demonstrates a worrying trend, whereby vulnerable populations are often confronted by a powerful convergence of economic and political interests.

Over half of the cases involve companies headquartered within Asia – demonstrating the high levels of inter-regional investment – however many were also from the US and Western Europe.  Our most frequent approaches regarding alleged abuses were to firms headquartered in: USA (42 approaches, with a 62% response rate), United Kingdom (27 – 78%), China (24 – 30%), South Korea (16 – 50%), Thailand (15 – 50%) and the Philippines (14 – 72%).


By far the highest number of alleged abuses to which we sought company responses occurred in Myanmar (123 approaches), followed by Philippines (48), Cambodia (46), Indonesia (43), and Malaysia (11).  This reflects the relatively high levels of engagement by civil society on those countries, as opposed to other countries of the region such as Laos (2) and Vietnam (1), where civil society is more restricted.



Almost half the cases (48%) relate to the extractive sector (including oil, gas and coal, and mining). Additional sectors that featured frequently are finance, agriculture & forestry, apparel, food & beverage, and tourism.  Land issues were the most frequently raised (52% of the cases related to forced evictions, displacement, compensation, or loss of related livelihoods), followed by workers’ rights (27% related to issues such as forced labour, child labour, and freedom of association).


Despite the major challenges, there are encouraging developments underway.  These include: strong, strategic networks of civil society groups across the region and internationally; efforts by some companies to conduct rigorous “human rights due diligence”; initiatives that apply the leverage of international financial institutions and banks to push improvements in company conduct; and the growing engagement of national human rights institutions, both in receiving specific complaints about companies and in promoting the business and human rights agenda.



Read on:

Full briefing  Find out more about these developments and read the recommendations.

Blog post: “Development for all: Protecting workers as economic integration sweeps Southeast Asia", Irene Pietropaoli in Asian Correspondent, April 17, 2015

We welcome suggestions of news and reports about alleged abuses and positive developments in the Southeast Asia region: Contact Irene Pietropaoli [email protected]