Development for all, or a privileged few?: Business & human rights in Southeast Asia

The ten ASEAN member states have set a target to integrate their economies by the end of 2015 into an “ASEAN Economic Community”, turning the region of 630 million people into a highly competitive single market. This could provide significant opportunities for decent work and improved livelihoods. As this briefing demonstrates, however, currently workers and local communities are losing out, as rapid integration coincides with intimidation of human rights defenders, forced evictions, and workers’ rights abuses.   

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We have produced this briefing as governments and business executives prepare to meet from 19-21 April 2015 in Indonesia for the World Economic Forum on East Asia, with the theme: “Anchoring Trust in East Asia’s New Regionalism.” The briefing draws on an analysis of our data over 10 years of tracking company human rights performance in the region. 

Heavy-handed actions by governments are often converging with economic interests, at the expense of workers and affected communities. Of the 278 cases of human rights allegations to which we have invited companies operating in Southeast Asia to respond, 70% involve some form of direct abuse by government forces – for example, in the form of forced eviction of communities from their land, or the use of violence in breaking up workers’ protests. Coupled with this, investor-state dispute settlements are on the rise. These can contribute to the weakening of laws in areas such as reducing pollution, ensuring safe workplaces, and protecting indigenous rights. 

High levels of intra-regional investment are reflected in the fact that over half (53%) of our approaches to companies regarding human rights allegations were to companies headquartered in Asia (of these, most frequently they were headquartered in China, followed by South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines). Our response rate from Asian-headquartered companies is 50%, compared with 76% from companies headquartered elsewhere. While a response does not mean that the company is fully addressing the particular issue, it does indicate a willingness to engage publicly with concerns raised by civil society. 

The briefing provides insights into areas where encouraging changes are underway, including: 

Strong civil society networks: Despite heavy restrictions on freedom of expression and association, remarkable coalitions are able to combine their resources to push for change. This year the ASEAN Civil Society Conference and ASEAN People’s Forum will mark its tenth year, in Kuala Lumpur from 21-24 April, bringing together thousands to address “Development Justice” among other priority themes. 

 

Companies conducting “human rights due diligence”: Our recent Myanmar Foreign Investment Tracking Project features examples of companies that are taking serious steps to avoid human rights abuses and establish grievance mechanisms. However, these examples are still too rare. 

 

Applying the leverage of financial institutions: IFIs and banks are under scrutiny for the projects they are financing, and civil society is applying various means to push them to use their leverage: some are reconsidering investment in projects that undermine human rights. 

The briefing makes recommendations to companies, including to:

  • consult thoroughly and openly with local communities and workers;
  • establish effective grievance mechanisms;
  • and take steps to avoid complicity in human rights violations by governments.

It makes recommendations to governments, including to:

  • enforce laws that protect workers, indigenous people, small landholders and the environment;
  • foster the development of civil society as a constructive and independent monitor;
  • and adopt and implement a “National Action Plan” on business and human rights. 

The latest Asian Development Outlook predicts a GDP expansion across the Southeast Asia region of 4.9% in 2015, and a further 5.3% in 2016.  ASEAN governments have adopted principles for “inclusive and sustainable growth”: this will only be achievable if accompanied by significant improvements in human rights protection for the people of ASEAN.