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ASEAN, Brunei Darussalam, Economy

Human Rights and Business Report

by Abdul Malik Omar

as per the fulfillment of his part after being selected by DPPMB and sponsored by CSR Network to attend the Human Rights and Business Training programme organised by AIPHR in Bangkok, Thailand from the 13th to 17th November 2016

The Rana Plaza tragedy, the Volkswagen emission scandal, the modern slavery in fishery industry in Thailand, the corporate land grabs from rural villagers in the Philippines, and the decimation of the Borneo’s forests by companies are just some of the examples of the gross violation of human rights by businesses in the world we are living in today. If there is one key message that we learned from the forum is that there has to be a need to avoid such things from happening ever again. In the forum, the UN Sustainable Development Goals is affixed as the north star to aim towards, followed by the principles outlined by the UN Development Programme, and finally the tripartite pillars that should be inculcated and implemented by the public, private, and civil society organisations, namely the need for these organisation to uphold respect for human rights, to provide access to remedy for those whose rights are violated, and to promote the idea of human rights in this ASEAN region in particular.

Reflecting on the lessons on how DPPMB can capitalise from this report is the importance for DPPMB to align three of the seventeen objectives with the United Nations Development Goals, which is 1) to promote economic growth, 2) to provide jobs for all, 3) and to eliminate poverty by 2035. Next, DPPMB should work towards engaging with UNDP’s officials by inviting them over to Brunei Darussalam for a forum – based on my conversations with the head of UNDP Thailand, they are highly open to fly to Brunei to give a talk to use or even to schools in the country without any need for us to pay their flight, hotel, food, and/or transport bills. Finally, DPPMB should promote the idea of human rights through business by potentially giving me the chance to present to the board or to the team with what I have learned. There are cultural and, at times, political issues rooted in the concept of human rights, which may make it uncomfortable for certain stakeholders to listen in, but based on this writer’s understanding in the context of business, it is just a matter of giving individuals and society at large the impetus needed so that the tragedies mentioned above do not happen again.

The Government of Brunei can contribute towards promoting human rights in business by strengthening the rule of law. This involves offering a “bouquet” of and easy access to remedy for those whose rights are violated by businesses in the country. For instance, it is illegal for businesses as per the International Labour Standard to withhold passport of labour migrant workers – yet there a lot of businesses doing it in Brunei, arguably. Other examples include businesses forcing the migrant workers to work beyond the eight-hour work time-frame or even to work in a haphazard non-HSE complaint environment. The sad case is that some of these incidents also happen to our locals. Yet, these workers, more or less, have no power, knowledge nor resource to file an effective complaint nor have the ability to secure an effective remedy against their employers. Without the presence of an effective, rules-based, people-centered human rights legal framework, which is supposedly provisioned by the government, securing justice would almost certainly be unlikely for these people. Therefore, the government has to play its role by building an effective legal framework so that the migrant and local workers have the ability to secure the justice they need and so that businesses are deterred from committing acts that violate human rights. Only the Government has the ultimate prerogative and responsibility to shape the legal aspects of the country.

A critical area regarding the meeting that has to be considered is how seemingly theoretically- and academic-oriented the seminar was. This has the effect of putting some action-oriented businesspeople off, which is understandable in a way because every event organised by a body may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Next, there is the question of post-event implementation. How am I personally going to ensure that whatever I learned will bear fruit in Brunei except by writing this report, potentially giving a presentation to the DPPMB board, and inviting the UNDP people to deliver a talk in the country? The next question is will anyone even read this report and, subsequently, be ready to actively disseminate it to the relevant parties so that the recommendations will be followed through, or will this report be ignored, arguably, much like any other reports written by others that come before me? Next there is the question of whether the government will even consider sitting down with me in the same table so that I can present them what I have learned, because a crucial element of change demands the government playing its part too, otherwise it is only going to be a waste of time and energy spent in going to this event. Out of all the concerns, I believe that the most important question boils down to this: Will the government even be bothered to listen to people like me or will they just continue to ignore us?

In any case, advocating an idea is widely seen as a challenging process, one which I fully understand and embrace. Even more complicated is the call for promoting the concept of “human rights” in Brunei, an idea seemingly seen by the general society wrongly as a “Western concept”. No. Human Rights is a universal concept, not a “Western one”. Still, reflecting on the people I met gave me hope that change can be forthcoming if we demand it to be. One Indonesian delegate who works for his country’s government last year attended a seminar hosted by the same organisation, but focusing on human rights with a specific focus on people with disabilities. One of the things that resulted from that event is how it successfully injected theoretical concepts, know-how, networks, and evidence needed for him and his team to affect their country’s legislation pertaining people with disabilities. In the very same year, Indonesia, under his department, successfully enacted a legislation requiring every big business (of a certain size) to open and fill a 1% workforce quota to be filled by people with disabilities. In one way or another, attending the event really opened my eyes to the challenging but rewarding nature of advocacy. If Indonesia – a country of two and sixty million people – have the political will to shape its laws for the better, then there is a chance that Brunei can do. No.  Brunei must and needs too as soon as possible.

At the broader strategic context, I also learned to understand and appreciate the use of these types of meetings or events. Despite being observed as just yet another “business meeting” or another “academic forum” by society at large, in actuality, it serves as a catalyst for change that can have far-reaching ramifications to the general society if enough of the right people or the right influencers are on board. Promoting awareness of a particular issue, giving them the chance to voice out their concerns, to reflect their experiences from their own countries to the context of a given event’s theme, and to secure their promise to make a change based on what they have learned can have the telling effect of shaping their intellectual or philosophical development, which necessitates them to learn concepts, keywords, evidences, and a host of other things as a perquisite to advocate an idea or a group of ideas. Once their intellectual understanding and confidence level reaches a certain vantage point can there be a level of practical action plan  (or a National Action Plan) that can be developed by each individual to make a change in his or her communities. It is then a matter of when not if. A good example can be made out of a Thai government official (who was a speaker in the event) who promoted the idea of human rights and business over the course of several years, first at her department and ministerial level, and finally, one which culminates with the Thailand Prime Minister himself committing to the principles of human rights and business in a televised national address seen by the millions of Thai people. One person can affect change if he or she is persistent enough.

To conclude, human rights in the context of business is a very vital subject that has to be debated, reflected, and deliberated upon if Brunei is ever going to advance itself in the civilized world. The concerted efforts by the public, private, and civil society organisations in Brunei are crucial if we are going to implement the details in this report. Despite the misconception of what our culture may say about “human rights”, Brunei is actually doing it as we speak, such as by giving people education, healthcare, welfare and more. Still, we cannot be complacent in the context of business, as it may have been closed over as a light matter over the past few decades. And just because we are good at the aforementioned factors do not mean that we can rest our laurels, because by the end of the day, there are over a hundred thousand migrants and expats and over two hundred thousand people under the age of 30 years old whose lives are affected directly and indirectly by businesses, the government, and civil society organisations in this country. It would be foolhardy to claim that everyone is happy with the status quo. A certain percentage of them may require or are crying for the help they need when it comes to securing their justice in the midst of the gross violation of human rights in this country. Everything that has not worked in the past has to therefore change. And change starts by building our awareness on these violations. Next, we need to promote the idea of human rights. Finally, we have to affect change at the intellectual and at the practical level of the government, private, and civil society organisations in the country through persistent, never-ending advocacy for better change, for a better life for all regardless of their religion, creed, race, and ethnicity. To close, let me borrow the words of Mathama Gandhi, let us be the change we want to see in the world. It starts today, and it starts with you.

The report above is written by Abdul Malik Omar (abdulmalikomarblog.wordpress.com). The author would like to extend his deepest gratitude to the DPPMB team for the privilege of being selected as one of the Brunei delegation to attend this conference. The author is also indebted to the support of the CSR Network for giving him the golden chance to represent and speak on behalf of a group of professionals from a wide array of backgrounds from this region in one of the working group sessions. If there are any questions regarding this report, you may contact the author personally through his phone number +673-8605118 or his email at am.hajiomar@gmail.com


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