ISEAS-SPF Webinar on “Engaging Southeast Asia’s Labour Force”

This webinar discussed how companies across Southeast Asia can enhance their responsible business practices to address labour issues and societal inequalities that have been magnified by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Enhancing Responsible Business in Southeast Asia

Wednesday, 9 September 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in partnership with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation held a webinar on “Engaging Southeast Asia’s Labour Force”. The webinar is part of a six-part ISEAS-SPF Asia Impact Dialogue Webinar Series on “Enhancing Responsible Business in Southeast Asia”.

Moderated by Senior Fellow of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Benjamin Loh, the webinar featured the insights of Dr Oliver Tappe (ISEAS), Dr Vannarith Chheang (Asian Vision Institute), Dr Su Yin Htun (University of Mandalay), and Dr Tham Siew Yean (ISEAS). The speakers presented their analyses of the impact of business activities and foreign direct investment on local and migrant labour, and discussed concrete responsible business practices that can address labour issues and societal inequalities that have been magnified by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Oliver Tappe
Dr Oliver Tappe examines “Artisanal and Small-scale Mining in Laos: Local Subsistence Strategies, New Frontier Capitalism and Shifting Labour Relations”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar began with Dr Oliver Tappe’s presentation which highlighted the legal ambiguities and administrative arbitrariness by public and private actors of the mining industry in Laos, and the complex relationship between big mining companies and the artisanal and smallholder miners. Dr Tappe argued that the local Laos population have been excluded from job opportunities by foreign mining companies, and they are also not protected against health risks when they practice artisanal and small-scale mining for their subsistence. Foreign companies’ preference for Vietnamese migrant workers, through legal loopholes in Laos’ labour laws, is one of the reasons for the exclusion. Foreign companies, using the excuse of respecting the customary rights of locals to practice artisanal and small-scale mining, exploit local miners as informal labour. Dr Tappe also outlined various challenges faced by the Laos government in resource governance, even though the Law of Minerals has been progressively improved.

Dr Vannarith Chheang
Dr Vannarith Chheang examines “Chinese Investments in Cambodia and their Challenges for Business and Human Rights”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Vannarith Chheang examined the impact of Chinese investments in Cambodia and how Chinese companies could do more to safeguard labour conditions and interests that has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Vannarith shared that the pandemic has adversely affected more than 150,000 factory workers and their families due to supply disruptions and factory closures in the textile industry. As Chinese investments continue to increase, he emphasised the need to develop an effective strategy for Chinese companies to engage with local stakeholders and workers. He suggested that the Cambodian government play a stronger role to improve labour standards by enhancing local governance and strengthening labour compliance, and a holistic reform of Chinese capitalism to consider the social and environmental impacts of Chinese investments.

Dr Su Yin Htun
Dr Su Yin Htun spoke on sustainable development in a local community in the the mining sector in Myanmar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Su Yin Htun assessed the effectiveness of existing laws governing the mining sector in Myanmar to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs) for the local community. While Myanmar laws have begun to recognise and incorporate SDGs, there remains a lack of accountability and remediation from the government. This is evidenced by the government’s handling of the recent mine landslides in the Hpakant area of Kachin state. To achieve sustainable development, Dr Htun emphasised the importance of establishing and enhancing global multi-stakeholder partnerships in addition to environmental, social and economic sustainability. She also recommended that business enterprises should be take responsibility and abide by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Businesses and Human Rights to protect and respect human rights, and provide access to remedy.

Dr Tham Siew Yean
Dr Tham Siew Yean spoke on “Foreign Workers and Human Rights in Malaysia”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Tham Siew Yean reviewed the current state of migrant worker abuse in Malaysia and evaluated large corporations’ approaches to responsible business practices on corporate social responsibility and sustainable reporting. Dr Tham said that existing studies found evidence of human right abuses, but more research is needed to understand the extent of the problem among migrant workers in the country. The uneven treatment of migrant workers and employers without social security is evident in the current Covid-19 pandemic. She mentioned that migrant workers are subject to mandatory Covid-19 screening and its costs while local workers and employers do not have such obligations. She also argued that large corporations should include human rights in sustainable reporting, and shift from technical to meaningful reporting of compliance in a post-pandemic future.

80 participants attended the webinar which was moderated by Dr Benjamin Loh
80 participants attended the webinar which was moderated by Dr Benjamin Loh. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar concluded with a Question and Answer session. The online audience engaged the speakers on a variety of questions which included the steps taken and challenges faced by the Cambodia government to improve transparency in infrastructural investment from China; the differences in labour standards and practices inside and outside of the Special Economic Zones in Cambodia; and the role of government agencies such as FELDA in reducing inequalities and promoting better working conditions for migrant workers in Malaysia.