The Five Biggest Issues Related to Business and Human Rights in Asia

Asian Farmer

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed in 2011, states in its introduction that “business enterprises can profoundly impact the human rights of employees, consumers, and communities wherever they operate. These impacts may be positive, such as increasing access to employment or improving public services, or negative, such as polluting the environment, underpaying workers, or forcibly evicting communities.”

It couldn’t be truer for Asia: as the largest continent with close to 60% of the world population living in it, Asia is at once a land of opportunity and adversity. With growth projected to slow down to 5.7% for 2016 and 2017 from 6.3% in the previous year, Asia is grappling with issues of prosperity and human rights. Home to most of the world’s poorest, Asia is a hotbed of crime, corruption, exploitation of human rights, weak monitoring and implementation of rule of law and neglect of environment. The situation is partly exacerbated by the notion that protection of human rights falls within the purview of government and not the private sector.

With that backdrop, we look at five of the biggest issues related to business and human rights in Asia.

1. Working Conditions and Safety

Weak implementation of labour laws and monitoring can give free reign to companies to exploit their workers with a high level of disregard for health and safety. The workers, mostly rural migrant, endure substandard working conditions and long hours, often working seven days a week, with no legal protection, and are exposed to health hazards - with no access to health services. Most women workers and children face sexual exploitation at the workplace.

China has approximately 150 million internal migrant workers who are not entitled to any state benefits or protection under the permit system, hukou. Prior to opening up its economy, the Chinese government heavily regulated the movement of people from rural to urban areas by introducing a permit system that tied people to their birthplace. While constraints on migration were gradually reduced, the restrictions on household registration of the hukou have remained in place, exposing the 85% of Chinese rural migrant workers to extreme poverty and several human rights violations. The case is similar for South Asian countries like India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where factory workers are made to work long hours in poor and harsh conditions.

Further, workplace-related deaths are commonplace in South Asian and South East Asian countries with the International Labour Organisation reporting that, more than 1.1 million people die annually from occupational accidents or work-related diseases in Asia and the Pacific. In 2013, an illegally built eight-story garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing more than 1100 workers, injuring 2000 with 104 people still missing.  Half of the international brands associated with this disaster had yet to pay into the $40 million compensation fund set up by the UN for its survivors and dependents.

These fatalities are in addition to the long latency diseases factory workers are exposed to. In North East India, nearly 100 starvation deaths between 2015-16 have highlighted the working conditions of tea workers at closed tea plantations in West Bengal. The tea-garden workers, mostly of tribal origin, suffer from isolation and have no access to health services, which aggravates their situation further. The State Government instead contended that the deaths were caused by “prolonged malnutrition”.

2. Low Wages

Growth in manufacturing sector comes at a price of human rights in countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines, where the young population that keeps a lid on wage growth has a global median age of 29.7. This makes them more likely to protest poor conditions and lower wages. The average factory worker in China earns $27.50 per day, compared with $8.60 in Indonesia and $6.70 in Vietnam.

Bangladeshi workers in the garment factories sew for $2.00 a day, working 12 to 14 hour shifts six to seven days a week. The minimum wage is around $38 a month. Bangladesh has around 4 million people working in more than 5,000 garment factories, who produce 80% of the nation’s exports. Minimum wage in India varies from 160 rupees ($2.40) per day in Bihar to 423 rupees (6.35) per day in Delhi.

In India, a study by the United Tea Workers Front (UTWF) in Dooars found that over the past decade, 1,000 tea-garden workers have died, mostly due to starvation, which is largely due to the fact that the tea-garden workers earned about Rs. 90 ($1.50) a day, making survival difficult even before the closure of the estates.

3. Child Labour

According to conservative estimates, there are 16.7 million (5-17 year old) children in child labour in South Asia, and of these, 10.3 million are in the age range of 5-14 years. In absolute terms, child labour is highest in India (5.8 million), followed by Bangladesh (5.0 million), Pakistan (3.4 million) and Nepal (2.0 million).

Exploitation of child labour is rampant in the carpet and fishing industries in South and South East Asian countries. According to the UNICEF, approximately 90% of the carpet makers’ work force consists of child labourers. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) estimates the number of Pakistani working children to be slightly over 11 million. In India, where $306 million worth of hand-made carpets are exported to the US, has a 20% industry prevalence of child labour. Children in carpet factories are subject to malnutrition, impaired vision, deformities from sitting long hours in cramped loom sheds, respiratory diseases from inhaling wool fibers and wounds from using sharp tools.

In the Philippines, children are used in extremely dangerous deep-sea jobs, muro-ami, which employs children as swimmers and divers using nets to fish in reefs. The perception is that their smaller bodies and hands are better for diving deeper and that their fingers are nimble for intricate carpet designs. Child divers risk ear damage, injuries from falls, shark attacks, snakebites and drowning, per the International Labor Organization.

4. Unfair Land Acquisition

The link between human rights, land rights and business is an important element of corporate responsibility because human rights impacts are often associated with business deals following land appropriation practices by governments that violate local use rights and undermine the human rights of local communities and traditional users of land.

Demand for palm oil, widely used in cooking oil and noodle, is a $44 billion industry worldwide. In 2016, exports from Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, hit a five-year high. Almost three-fourths of all arable land in Cambodia is estimated as having been transferred to private companies since 2001, displacing hundreds of thousands of farmers. It is estimated that since 2000, some 700,000 Cambodians have been adversely affected by economic land concessions throughout the country. In the Philippines, one million hectares of land, an area approximately the size of Lebanon, is projected for conversion to oil palm plantations between 2011 and 2022.

Governments often act in support of agribusiness and extractive industries by justifying their actions as utilizing “large quantities of empty or underutilised land that can be put to more productive use and can address the issue of poverty through its transfer to large companies.” Unfair land acquisitions will continue to have devastating consequences on the lives of these people with global palm oil production expected to increase 29% from 2016 to 2025.

5. Gender Inequality

In 98 percent of the world's economies, the female labour force participation rate is below the male rate. In developing countries in Asia, the female rate is about 49 per cent, compared with 80 per cent for men. In fact, it is the only region in the world that exhibits a declining female labour force participation rate over the past two decades.

Even while women are employed, gender inequality in wage differentials remains entrenched, with women typically earning 70%-90% of male wage (50% in Bangladesh and 80% in Mongolia). Women are also highly exposed to long working hours with high susceptibility to sexual harassment at the workplace.  For instance, up to 70% of women workers in Guangzhou’s factories have been sexually harassed, a survey by a labour rights group in the city has found. The problem is so serious that 15 percent of victims felt they had no option but to leave their job to get away from their harasser.

Stereotypes in gender roles also exist when it comes to formal sectors with only 30% of women in Asia and the Pacific employed in non-agriculture sectors, with only 20% in South Asia - the lowest among the world's regions. Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, though culturally and economically diverse, are all grappling with the experience of gender discrimination against women.

Like their male counterparts, most women factory workers are exposed to long working hours, but they are not entitled to maternity leave, have no access to day care center forcing them to leave their children with their family in the countryside.

It goes without saying that in many of these instances, these five issues are rooted in the lack of/weak rule of law, with governments failing to enforce basic health and safety standards and disregarding property rights of the poor. While it recognized that some governments in Southeast Asia are actively engaging in the improvement of human rights issues in their countries, businesses on the other hand, need to realize that taking advantage of bad governance may be profitable in the short run, but can have very serious repercussions later on.