On 29-31 March 2012, the 8th ASEAN Civil Society Conference(ACSC)/ASEAN People’s Forum (APF): Transforming ASEAN into a People-Centered Community was organised at the Lucky Star Hotel, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which was attended by around 1,000 civil society representatives. As a part of the APF program, MMN organised a thematic Workshop entitled The Bottom of ASEAN on 30 March 2012. The Workshop was attended by around 40-50 participants.
ASEAN People’s Forum Thematic Workshop: The Bottom of ASEAN
Organised by the Mekong Migration Network (MMN)
March 30th 2012
The workshop was convened to examine the impact on the countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion of the ASEAN Economic Integration of 2015. The countries of the Mekong include some of the poorest and most recently developing countries of the ASEAN. The regional integration is being presented on the one hand as an opportunity to attract skilled labour and increase foreign investment, and on the other hand as a threat to the current migration patterns and labour standards. A newly arising concern in the region is the rushed inflows of foreign direct investment into Burma, following the election in 2011. Countries which had been previously hesitant to allow their corporations to invest in Burma are currently actively promoting moving their production bases to Burma, where “wages are cheap and there is an abundant labour force”. This rush to take advantage of the changing political circumstances ignores the fact that there remains no mechanism in place to secure workers’ rights. This “race to the bottom” trend could potentially suppress wages and labour standards in the region, and undermine the participation of the people of ASEAN in the development of our region.
Hence, it was felt timely to discuss what civil society can do to pressure ASEAN countries to not sacrifice the rights of workers to the greed for profit and to ensure protection of all workers in the region including migrant workers.
The following speakers presented on issues below.
1. Vichuta Ly, Executive Director, Legal Support for Children and Women, Cambodia
“Impact of the ASEAN economic integration on migration and labour patterns”
2. Po Po, Foundation for Education and Development, Thailand
“Impact of changes in Myanmar on migration patterns”
3. Omsin Boonlert, Advocacy and Research Officer, Mekong Migration Network
4.Pranom Somwong, MMN Advocacy Convenor
“How the race to the bottom in the Mekong may impact labour standards in ASEAN”
Facilitator: Ms. Jackie Pollock: Chairperson, MMN
Ms Vichuta talked about how governments in ASEAN are providing incentives for industries and businesses to invest in their countries and how this is fuelling race to the bottom among investors. Ms. Jackie Pollock elaborated that the bottom of the ASEAN will be the country with the least legal protection for workers and citizens, which pays the lowest wages, and has unprotected natural resources and weak governance. This “race to the bottom” trend could potentially suppress wages and labour standards in the region with long lasting negative consequences on the well-being of the people of ASEAN and on the environment.
Po Po’s presentation explored the impact of changes in Burma, on investment, labour, human rights and migration. Countries which had been previously hesitant to allow their corporations to invest in Burma are currently actively promoting moving their production bases to move to Burma and are eager to make themselves bigger profits by paying the workers less than anywhere else. Popo urged investors to be more cautious and to only invest where there are effective mechanisms in place to provide comprehensive rights to workers and to protect the environment.
Ms. Boonlert talked about how not only workers but also businesses move regularly. Workers follow the labour shortages and fill those gaps but investors and factories follow the protection shortages and take advantage of those gaps. They move to where they can exploit workers and natural resources, creating unemployment in the areas they leave behind and creating new forms of migration and exploitation in the places where they relocate.
Ms Somwong noted that intense competition between countries to attract foreign investment is undermining respect for labour standards especially in labour intensive industries. This in its turn challenges the ability of governments to enforce labour regulations creating states where businesses have greater influence than elected governments or even non-elected ones.
The workshop participants expressed concern that the ASEAN Economic Integration would enforce and expand the existing discrimination between the rights and conditions for skilled and unskilled workers. The current framework for the ASEAN Economic Integration promotes the free movement of only skilled workers, ignoring the future of the millions of workers in low skilled jobs. In the race to the bottom, they feared that many unskilled workers in the region would be left at the bottom forever. The participants felt that the provision of skills training and career opportunities for all workers and particularly unskilled workers was urgently needed.
The participants also expressed concern at the frequent usage of the term “cheap labour” by not only business people but also politicians and even ASEAN representatives. The workshop hoped that the media might in the future challenge anyone who uses this term. The media could for example ask whether those talking about cheap labour were actually talking about exploiting workers and paying less than a living wage.
Recommendations to ASEAN leaders arising from this workshop:
1. Ensure proper mechanisms in all ASEAN countries to protect the rights of all workers, including migrant workers and workers in informal sectors;
2. Implement codes of conducts and/or business ethical principles;
3. Establish a standardized system for calculating minimum living wages which is reviewed annually;
4. Improve and standardize working conditions for ASEAN countries (ie. OHS regulations, working hours );
5. Make ongoing skills training accessible to all workers particularly those who are in low skilled sectors and expand vocational and academic opportunities
6. Expand coverage of social security to include all workers, including informal sectors and migrant workers, and work towards portable social security systems;
7. Establish a regional system to protect workers’ right to unionization and collective bargaining.
8. Uphold workers’ right to justice by reforming judicial systems and increasing transparency;
9. Include free flow of all workers including unskilled workers in ASEAN regional integration; and
10. Establish an ASEAN labour court.
 JETRO, “Power of Newly Rising Mekong Economies”, JETRO Censor Newsletter (Japanese edition), p. 7, March 2011.
 Mekong Migration Network has produced a publication entitled Speaking of Migration: Mekong Vocabulary on Migration, which provides terms and discussion on migration terminology in English and all the Mekong languages. The online interactive Speaking of Migration can be accessed at: https://mekongmigration.org/vocab/
 Referring to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, by John Ruggie, UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Business and Human Rights