Business and Human Rights: Asia in Focus
Welcome everyone to our programme: “Business and Human Rights: Asia in Focus.” My name is Sean Lees. And I’m Teirra Kamolvattanavith. In partnership with the European Union, UNDP is excited to host this programme and provide real-time insights into responsible business developments in countries throughout the region. The Business and Human Rights in Asia initiative was launched in January 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this programme, we’ll discuss how the pandemic has shaped the agenda, while also detailing other issues related to women’s empowerment, environmental protection, and migrant labour rights.
Our initiative is complemented by support from the Government of Sweden. Plus, in our special report segment, we will explore how Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, are silencing human rights defenders in Thailand, and what CSOs and the Government of Thailand are doing about it. Asia in Focus is also excited to be the first programme in the lead up to the Bangkok Business and Human Rights Week and the Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum. We have a lot to cover in the hour, so let’s get started! Hello, and thanks again for joining us for “Business and Human Rights: Asia in Focus.”
This special one-hour programme will give you a closer look into the joint work of the EU and UNDP on the Business and Human Rights agenda. We have our team of Business and Human Rights Specialists ready to answer your questions on a range of subjects. Please put your questions to them in the live chat. The main goal of the Business and Human Rights initiative is to achieve greater uptake of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in Asia. To better understand the challenges and opportunities, we will hear from a Business and Human Rights Specialist in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Mongolia and Indonesia. Later in the programme, we will have an interview with an EU Trade Counselor on the human rights and environmental dimensions of the EU's new trade policy. Now, India is grappling with one of the most significant public health crises since the country's independence.
The economy has ground to a halt. Unemployment continues to rise as the number of COVID-19 patients increases. What role and place does the Business and Human Rights agenda have under current circumstances in India? Let’s welcome Business and Human Rights Specialist, Nusrat Khan to give us some perspective. Nusrat, welcome. Thank you Sean and Teirra.
Indeed, India faces a huge crisis at the moment not only from a public health perspective. The country is facing its largest economic contraction ever recorded. Currently, economists have predicted a 7.7% decline in India’s GDP, setting the country up for its biggest economic hit since 1952. Tell us Nusrat, amidst the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the government still able and willing to push a wider Business and Human Rights agenda? Well, based on my work with the Government agencies, I can say that the government is working on recovery plans and the responsible business agenda is at the very heart of it. As you may know, UNDP has been working with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs for over two years now on the development of India's National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.
And there is a new draft nearly ready to be shared. However, this may not be the right time for it, given the other pressing priorities at hand. As you may appreciate, given the unprecedented emergency circumstances at the moment, there is very little appetite for discussion and debate on policy frameworks, and perhaps that is to be expected. What are the hopes of the Business and Human Rights agenda being back on track? Under the circumstances, I think the agenda is very much on track.
COVID-19 has especially highlighted the importance and critical role of responsible business in a society’s well being overall. Our job at the moment is to ensure that policy makers remain mindful of the relevance of this agenda in the time of this crisis. And in some ways, the follow-through on the Business and Human Rights agenda in India will influence its uptake by other countries facing similar economic and social distress. A stark reminder of what’s at stake in these difficult times. Thank you so much, Nusrat for your update on India. Thank you both.
Battling the COVID-19 pandemic has led to huge demand for medical supplies. To fill the orders, many workers are working overtime in cramped facilities. Two-thirds of the world’s medical gloves come from Malaysia.
But earlier this year, the US Customs and Border Protection agency banned imports of rubber gloves from Malaysia’s largest manufacturer, citing forced labour allegations. How has Malaysia responded to this? Joining us now is Jehan Wan Abdul Aziz. Jehan. Thanks Sean. Indeed, on 15 July 2020 the US found credible allegations that rubber gloves were made by workers subject to debt bondage, excessive overtime work, retention of identification documents, and substandard accommodation. The US issued what is called a “Withhold Release Order” on these shipments.
What was the reaction of the Malaysian business community? Well the ban on rubber glove shipments really shook the industry here. I think many were surprised by this action. Almost immediately, the company subject to the ban launched a 60-million-dollar remediation campaign, in an attempt to reimburse workers for recruitment fees that they may have paid for the opportunity to work in Malaysia. As you may know, recruitment fees forced upon workers is a major risk factor of forced labour. What I find really interesting about this case though, is that after the remediation programme was launched, another company followed suit even though it was not subject to any import ban. That is really surprising. Any more recent developments?
Well first, let me say that we really welcome these responses from Malaysian industry. And we are very happy to have their support in promoting wider access to remedy. But the main goal is to prevent labour abuses from happening in the first place, and this is where human rights due diligence comes in. So our focus for 2021 is to raise awareness among all stakeholders on due diligence and responsible business practices. We are looking at supporting civil society to engage on these issues. What actions has the government taken in light of the import ban? Well, after the Withhold Release Order, the government took legal action against a rubber glove manufacturer for issues related to poor accommodations for migrant workers and other indicators of forced labour.
The government also began moving more steadily towards a national baseline assessment to identify gaps across three thematic areas— labour, the environment, and governance. And we are hoping that the government will launch a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights in the next 12 months or so. Thank you, Jehan. We will be watching closely for other fast-moving developments in Malaysia. Next on “Business and Human Rights: Asia in Focus,” we will be talking about women’s work and the gender pay gap. How societal norms are affecting women’s occupational choices—and their pay in Sri Lanka. Each year, thousands of young women in Sri Lanka leave their homes in remote areas of the country to work in the country’s Free Trade Zones or FTZs.
These FTZs are duty-free manufacturing facilities, and home to the country’s 5-billion-dollar apparel industry. While the pay is higher than average in FTZs, women are paid much less than men and receive no benefits. What will be the way forward? And how can the country promote greater women’s participation in the labour market? Myanthi Peiris, UNDP’s Business and Human Rights Specialist in Sri Lanka, is here to tell us more. Hi, Myanthi! Hi Teirra. Yes, actually many of the beautiful clothing we see on the runways and around the world are produced in Sri Lanka.
And the driving force behind these products are the Sri Lankan women. However, as the industry continues to grow and the need for workers increases, women’s participation in the labour force nationally remains stagnant at around 35% and this has been the case over the last few decades. Why is this happening Myanthi? Well in Sri Lanka, women face several barriers such as occupational segregation, income inequality, as well as discrimination in the workplace.
The quality of jobs that are available to women are lower than that of men. Also, most employers only offer contractual and temporary working arrangements, and all of these factors prevent women in Sri Lanka from joining the workforce. So the lack of women’s participation may also be symptomatic of discrimination and human rights abuses in business operations in Sri Lanka. Tell us, what is UNDP doing to promote women’s participation in the workforce? Since 2020, UNDP Sri Lanka has been working with Women’s Centre, a civil society organization operating in the country’s Free Trade Zones.
This organization helps women dealing with labour rights-related issues such as unlawful termination. We support the CSO in educating women about their rights. We also support them to make referrals, connecting them with relevant authorities and for them to be able to access legal aid. And this has been a significant part of our work, especially in the context of COVID. And what kind of impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on women workers working in the Free Trade Zones? When the second wave hit last year, factories had to be shut down.
Many women were left with no work and no income overnight. They were unable to access government support because they were not officially registered at their temporary residences. Together with Women's Centre, we identified these women and we raised their concerns over unpaid wages and other rights-related abuses with their employers and relevant state authorities. That's really impressive work. Thank you, Myanthi, for bringing the gender lens into focus and highlighting the vital role of CSOs in helping to advance the Business and Human Rights agenda.
Sri Lanka is one of the countries to receive preferential trade benefits from the EU. Indeed, EU policy on trade is subject to much international interest, especially as it charts a new course in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are joined now by Isabelle De Stobbeleir, the EU Delegation’s Trade Counselor in Thailand. Welcome Isabelle! Hello, it’s very nice to be here. Thank you for inviting me. Isabelle, what would you say is the role of EU trade policy in promoting progress on the Business Human Rights agenda? What are some tools in the trade policy toolbox to ensure international obligations on human rights are honored? Well, trade policy is expected to deliver on very diverse expectations, traditionally ranging from supporting economic growth, jobs, also to promote some geo-political interests. Making trade policy a tool to promote human rights and to fight against climate change, is a more recent trend.
It's true that this aspiration of using trade policy towards sustainability is a recent trend that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. You are absolutely right, trade policy has definitely a role to play and it is a powerful tool to trigger responsibilities of businesses vis-à-vis human rights and the environmental challenge. What exactly is the role of the trade policy? Conceptually speaking, it is like a diptych. You have two pieces that complement each other.
You have on one hand, rights or benefits generated from trade. On the other hand, you have obligations or responsibilities. And they complement each other, with benefits come responsibilities. Your receive, you give, you care. We believe that when you care about the workers, workers will give back. Same with nature and environment.
We are talking about natural capital on which businesses deeply depend. If you care about the environment, nature will give back. There is this essential change of mindset that needs to be operated by businesses and trade policies worldwide. We need to look longer term. This is part of the reflection in the EU.
It is becoming more visible through the integration of labour rights and human rights in the trade policy. We actually have different tools at our disposal. We are acting unilaterally, bilaterally and multilaterally. Unilaterally, there was a reference to Sri Lanka and trade preferences granted by the EU.
Unilaterally, we have those trade preference schemes that grant substantial benefits to developing countries. But, at the same time there are some obligations. We link the benefits to the implementation of international core conventions in terms of human rights, labour rights, environment and good governance. Unilaterally, we also have a range of legislations in place to put obligations on EU importers of certain products to exhaust due diligence on their supply chain.
We also have in the making, a mandatory due diligence legislation for all companies established in the EU. They will be obliged to carry out due diligence on their supply chain, whatever the sector they operate in. Trade policy is another unilateral tool. We have adopted a sustainable open assertive new trade policy in March this year.
Even though we already had sustainability, more specifically human rights and labour rights, in our trade strategy, with the new one we even go further also on the green agenda. But of course, human rights is still in there. What we are doing more concretely: we want to act at the multilateral level, this is what the trade policy foresees, we want to push forward initiatives at the WTO level on climate and sustainability. We want to build global alliances to drive global change in the field of sustainability. We will also have this mandatory due diligence legislation, we will use our FTAs as platforms to impose commitments and make sure that these are respected by all trade partners.
Bilaterally, we have the FTAs and a strong trade and sustainable development chapter in there with commitments linked to ILO conventions and multilateral environmental agreements. These are binding commitments. If there is no respect from the trade partner, it could trigger a dispute mechanism and difficulties in our trade relationships. I will just stop here, because we have so many tools, and this is very high on the agenda of the EU and especially for our trade policy for the next decade.
What is the message you would like to give our audience today on the importance of human rights and the environment to the trade relationship between the EU and Asia? First, we have to consider the economic truth. The global economic outlook shows that the EU will continue to be a major economic player. There is a projection by the OECD that we will keep growing at an annual GDP growth rate of 1.4%.
At the same time, other regions, other countries will continue rising, specifically here in Asia. It means that the relative position of the EU in the world trade competition will be affected. This is something we that we know, and take into account to support our political ambition to make a stronger Europe, and Asia will remain a key trading partner for Europe. At the same time, we have to respond to the legitimate expectations of our constituency, of our citizens, of our businesses in the field of sustainability. The bilateral trade and investment that we will continue having will not take place at any cost. This is a reality that is as important as the economic figures.
It is irresponsible and unrealistic from the EU and Asia to put aside people’s concerns, be it in the field of human rights or environment. It would simply not work. It is as simple as that. We need together to have a forward-looking vision, be transparent, liable and realise that not only the economy has turned global, but also information and people. We are capable to advance together on part of sustainability also at multilateral level. And no one reasonably wishes to bring the world to the brink of collapse, right? There are many possibilities at our disposal in the field of trade.
We just have to work together, build back the world better together and make good use of all these trade tools in an efficient and consturctive way. Very strong messages today, sustainability and coorperation. Thank you for being here today Isabelle. Thank you again for inviting me.
Thailand was the first country in Asia to have a stand-alone National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. The plan focuses on priority areas such as cross border investment and labor, land and natural resources, as well as human rights defenders. Now, as the plans are being rolled out, one key challenge that’s been identified is the "strategic lawsuits against public participation" or "SLAPP". These are used by corporations to intimidate critics. How will Thailand defend its right defenders? Let's turn to this special report.
According to reports, there have been over 200 defamation cases targeting activists, NGOs, academics and human rights defenders in Thailand since 1997. And the toll is growing. Filing libel and defamation cases is a tactic increasingly used by some businesses to intimidate public opposition. The goal is not so much to win the lawsuit but to drain the target’s time, energy and resources in protracted and expensive legal proceedings until they abandon their position. Human rights and environmental lawyer Sor Rattanamanee Polkla knows the issue all too well. She has dedicated her life to defending the rights of the accused.
We realise that whenever we work on the SLAPP lawsuit, the agenda of the company is not to win the case, but they want to stop, delay and make the community and human rights defender struggle. They try to use every lawsuit to stop the people. If it goes to the community or villagers who are poor and only earn a daily wage, they have to stop working and go to court. That is not fair because, they should not have to come for these kinds of cases. People lose their benefits; they cannot earn money in their daily work and it affects their families. These lawsuits are called SLAPPs or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
It’s a form of judicial harassment often brought against individuals or groups who rightfully voice concerns about issues affecting their communities. The Royal Thai Government has recognized the problem and is working with UNDP and civil society organizations to address this issue. Most recently changes to the country’s criminal code, to empower courts to dismiss private lawsuit cases found to be filed in bad faith.
The concept of SLAPP, however, is still new in Thailand therefore, many judges are unfamiliar with the practice and find it hard to tell what’s a SLAPP and what’s not. The Loei Gold Mining case, the company filed a case asking for 50 million baht compensation. Because they (the villagers) put a sign in front of the village saying, “This village does not want mining." The company used this to file a defamation case against them.
When the judicial see a case like this, they have to see what's the hidden agenda behind this. They have to see first, whether or not this is of public interest, or relates to public participation. If they found that these cases are related to these two things, then they have to reconsider and re-think that it may be a SLAPP case.
The people who come forward for their rights, who stand for their rights are not troublemakers. Then we should hear from them why they do this. Many thanks to our Business and Human Rights team for that story.
We are now joined by our Business and Human Rights Specialist in Thailand, Ms. Tarinee Suravoranon. Welcome to the show, Tarinee. Can you tell us what UNDP is doing with the government to support rights defenders and local communities? Thank you Sean for having me today.
As part of our project activities, and also continuous support for the Ministry of Justice on the implementation of the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, we are conducting two important studies: one on the Anti Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation or SLAPP’s laws and measures, and the second one, on the Protection of the Human Rights Defender. These two studies will involve the perspectives of judiciary, government, human rights defenders, research communities and other key stakeholders. The first study on anti-SLAPPs, we hope that this study will inform our policy makers and members of business communities of the economic impact and reputational risk associated with using SLAPPs against human rights defenders. Following this study, we plan to conduct a series of trainings for business leaders, legal practitioners, and also policy makers in order to advocate the recommendation of the study into practice. The second study on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, is aimed at outlining some of the good practices for the government and the business community to undertake, to respect and protect human rights defenders. But why is a study so important? How can it make a difference? It is quite difficult to estimate the impact of the study at the moment. However, we hope that our effort
in bringing all key stakeholders together will somehow lead to a stronger collaboration and partnership, and reflecting on Goal 17 of the sustainable development goals, and therefore will lead to a way forward to improve the situation of human rights defenders, including the prevention of all form of violations against them. Collaborating so closely with the government on issues as sensitive as these is a rare opportunity. We applaud the Government of Thailand and CSO partners for taking on such a difficult subject. Let’s hope their efforts serve as a model for the rest of the region.
Thank you for joining us, Ms. Tarinee. We wish you the best. The UNDP National Specialist in Mongolia and the newest member of the UNDP Business and Human Rights team, Ariunbileg Radnaa, will be joining us to talk about the tensions between nomadic herders and new mining enterprises. Next on “Business and Human Rights: Asia in Focus." In the last decade, Mongolia has transformed into a booming industrial economy driven by the mining sector. 90% of its exports come from mining, making up 23% of the country’s GDP. But along with exponential growth comes environmental degradation and pollution.
Families who have been herding for a millennia are now also forced to leave their traditional lands to make way for mining projects. How will the country of 3 million make sure that the rapid expansion of its mining industry is beneficial for all? Here with us now is, Ariuna. Hi, Ariuna, welcome to the programme. Hi, Tierra. Thank you for inviting me to the programme. Yes, the extractive sector has been booming for the last several years. As a consequence, there has been substantial labour shift from agriculture and nomadic herding to mining. Mining jobs usually pay more than the other industries, but it comes at a cost.
Workers especially those employed by small and medium size enterprises, mining and logistic supplier companies, constantly suffer from different health issues. Environmental damages cause by mining operations including degradation and shortage of pastureland, water pollution and scarcity, and overall environmental pollution is effecting not only the nomadic herders but also the communities living around the mining towns. The mining companies are also reluctant to invest in programs that allow them to have more meaningful and effective cooperation with the local communities. All these factors have led to different kind of conflicts between mining companies and local communities in most of the mining areas. What is being done about these issues? Well, since our programme has started in Mongolia officially in 2021, our focus has been to promote and strengthen multi-stakeholder dialogue among the government, mining companies, and local communities to enhance trust and collaboration. Mining is an important part of our economic growth, but we have to make sure that everyone benefits equally from it.
I understand that UNDP is also currently piloting projects at the local level involving communities and mining companies. Can you tell us more about that? Yes, we bring together all parties to the table where they can talk, discuss, ask questions, and voice concerns. The parties also conduct joint environmental monitoring. Mongolia has good environmental laws, but enforcement is difficult because there is a lack of awareness and supporting enforcement mechanisms among actors.
For example, mining companies, by law, are required to provide information about their operations to the public. In practice, most companies are reluctant to do so. We hope that the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights will change all these challenges we are facing with mining. Thank you Ariuna. We are looking forward for more updates in the near future. In Indonesia, the government is betting big on infrastructure to propel the country into new rates of economic growth. Currently, 89 strategic projects valued at 94.8 billion dollars are in the making, aimed at boosting connectivity for the world’s largest island country.
But the bold decision to fill the infrastructure gap has had some unintended impact in some cases. How can we make sure that everyone benefits from Indonesia’s infrastructure development plans? UNDP’s Indonesia Business and Human Rights Specialist, Sagita Adesywi, joins us now. Welcome, Sagita Sagita, tell us about the potential risks that infrastructure development poses to Indonesia. Infrastructure development is very important in the opinion of many as a means of elevating poverty in Indonesia.
However, due to the lack of meaningful dialogue with local communities and also some experts, some of the projects have undercut the livelihood of those the government wants to support the most. New toll roads have reportedly cut through farmland and left families disconnected from rivers, schools and markets. In some cases, inadequate compensation packages for community land is reportedly leaving people destitute.
These are some of the examples of problems that come without meaningful communication or consultation with local communities. What is UNDP and the government doing to solve these problems, Sagita? One of the avenues available to address human rights risks is the 20-ministry task force on the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. We have been working closely with the task force to finalize the plan over the past year, which we hope would be signed by the President by 2023.
The National Action Plan will address major concerns related to Business and Human Rights, including infrastructure development. Also, UNDP will be conducting a study on the risks and impacts of infrastructure projects on women and other vulnerable groups through the lens of business and human rights. The findings will help inform the development of the National Action Plan and help us lay the groundwork to work closely and deeply with the government, CSOs and business. Thanks Sagita. And indeed, deeper engagement with all stakeholders is called for on infrastructure development but also on mining projects, on women’s participation, on forced labour risks, on trade, and on the protection of human rights defenders. Through multi-stakeholder collaboration on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, we can elevate responsible business throughout Asia.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is the end of the “Business and Human Rights: Asia in Focus" programme. On behalf of UNDP and the EU, I would like to thank all of our Business and Human Rights Specialists, stakeholders, and government partners from all of our programming countries for your support throughout. Thank you, for watching today and being a partner in ensuring sustainable economic development in Asia. If you have any questions or want to find out more about our Business and Human Rights initiative, contact us through our email address on the screen and visit our website.