4th UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human RIghts
WORKERS AND BUSINESS IN A CHANGING WORLD
20-22 March 2023 | Kathmandu, Nepal
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South Asia – home to approximately one-sixth of the global population – has witnessed significantly higher than average growth rates in past decades. While the global gross domestic product (GDP) increased on average by 2.8% annually from 1991 to 2021, South Asia's GDP increased on average by 5.8% annually over the same period. However, these successes have not been shared proportionally within the countries in the sub-region where important inequalities persist or have increased due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other factors.
Across South Asia, most of the workforce is classified from extremely poor to near poor. Indeed, 69% of the workforce in Bangladesh, 73% in India, 63% in Nepal, 75% in Pakistan and 30% in Sri Lanka fall within one of these poverty categories. Although workers in different countries across the sub-region face unique challenges, their conditions are often characterized by a common thread of informality, working modalities that strip access to rights or social protection, labour rights abuses, and risk of losing their job or income due to, for example, climate change and the changing world of work. Workers also face additional challenges stemming from intersectionality (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, religion, physical condition), which exacerbates the marginalization and inequalities that they face.
In search of better employment opportunities, workers migrate to other countries, both within and outside of South Asia. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan feature in the top seven countries where international migrants originate. Consequently, countries in South Asia are heavily reliant on remittances. Migrant workers have supported their families and contributed to their home economies by transferring remittances worth $100 billion (2.9% of GDP) to India, $29 billion (7.7% of GDP) to Pakistan, $21 billion (4.6% of GDP) to Bangladesh, $8.5 billion (21.8% of GDP) to Nepal, and $3.6 billion (4.9% of GDP) to Sri Lanka in 2022. However, migrant workers – particularly in irregular status, the informal sector, and those categorized as lower skilled – are yet to be protected effectively and treated fairly, for example, by preventing forced and bonded labour and ensuring fair and ethical recruitment and access to decent work, including through the promotion of sustainable enterprises.
Informality and precarious employment modalities are common features in the region. Increasingly, workers are engaged in part-time work and fixed-term contracts, as well as through private employment agencies, which can offer a steppingstone to employment, especially for workers who face higher barriers in the labour market such as young, low-skilled and migrant workers. However, such modalities may also give rise to human rights abuses when they are not properly regulated, when they are used to circumvent an employer’s legal and contractual obligations, or when they do not afford adequate labour and social protection. Globally, informality remains a main source of decent work deficits, in particular in micro, small and medium sized enterprises.
The scale of the challenge becomes apparent when considering that 88% of employment in South Asia is informal. Data indicates that four in five workers in South Asia are situated within the informal economy. As a result, the majority of the workforce is excluded from social protection schemes, making them highly vulnerable to external shocks and socioeconomic hardships. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, 49 million people regressed into poverty in South Asia alone. Moreover, 29 million people suffered acute food and livelihood crises in 2021, twice as many as in 2020. Similar challenges are faced by gig and contract workers who depend on short-term contracts and freelance work, as opposed to stable jobs with formal employment status providing fixed incomes, social security and benefits.
In addition to these challenges, other global shifts will affect workers into the future. First, workers are at risk of losing their jobs due to the impacts of climate change. Second, if not managed fairly, workers might lose employment opportunities in the context of future transitions, including the transition from natural resource and carbon-intensive technologies to green technologies, the transition from manual labour to automated labour, or the formalization of the informal economy. As much as we see existing and evolving challenges for workers, several encouraging initiatives are underway to protect and respect workers’ rights. Endorsed unanimously by the Human Rights Council, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) have become the most authoritative global standard for preventing and addressing the risks of adverse human rights impacts linked to businesses. Many countries in Asia are developing or implementing national action plans on business and human rights (NAPs) to give force to the UNGPs. In implementing the UNGPs, States and businesses need to ensure that such transitions do not undermine workers' enjoyment of human rights; in other words, they need to realize just transitions.
South Asian economies will soon be impacted by numerous external legislative initiatives that attempt to address business and human rights issues in global value chains. For example, various European countries, as well as the European Union, have proposed or enacted mandatory human rights (and, in some cases, environmental) due diligence legislation requiring businesses to identify, prevent, mitigate and remediate business-related human rights abuses, including in value chains reaching into South Asia. Across the globe, businesses and investors are increasingly subject to, for example, reporting requirements on responsible business and potential import bans on products developed with forced labour. This begs the question: how can South Asian States, businesses and other stakeholders anticipate and respond to these legislative developments and address business-related human rights impacts faced by workers to ensure that countries in South Asia retain their place in global value chains? And what can South Asian micro, small and medium-sized enterprises do to ensure that the burdens of greater business respect for human rights are shared fairly between them and businesses from developed countries where business and human rights legislation is adopted and enforced?
Against this context, the 4th UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights will bring attention to the workers – both domestic (in their country of origin) and international (in a country of destination) – fueling development in Asia and the role States and businesses must play to protect and respect workers' rights based on the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework of the UNGPs. In particular, the Forum will focus on four sub-thematic issues concerning workers in South Asia, namely:
(i) labour migration
ii) informal and contract/gig workers
(iii) just transitions; and
(iv) supply chains and legislative initiatives on business and human rights.
About the 4th UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights
To promote responsible business conduct in South Asia, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) International Organization for Migration (IOM), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (UNWG), and the International Labour Organization (ILO) are organizing the 4th UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights on 20-22 March 2023. The Forum aims to facilitate a robust and multi-stakeholder dialogue based on the UNGPs that will foster joint action to prevent, mitigate and remediate business-related human rights and environmental abuses.
The 4th UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights, in addition to placing emphasis on four thematic areas, will continue to facilitate the sharing of experiences and peer learning among different stakeholder groups and provide safe spaces and training to particular stakeholder groups.
To assess sub-regional progress towards promoting business respect for human rights, challenges and opportunities in implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the uptake of the UNWG's Roadmap for the next decade of business and human rights, as well as country roadmaps developed during previous South Asia Forums
To explore linkages between workers, the business and human rights agenda, and sustainable development, and identify gaps and potential solutions
To encourage peer learning among a wide array of stakeholders in South Asia and facilitate the regional exchange of good practices in promoting labour rights in business operations, implementing the UNGPs and the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration), and achieving the SDGs
To provide a platform for safe space discussions and capacity building opportunities for government officials, national human rights institutions, human rights defenders and civil society organizations, trade unions, businesses and employers' organizations
The 4th UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights will be organized in Kathmandu, Nepal, in a hybrid format over three days: 20-22 March 2022. In addition, there will be sector-specific trainings and safe spaces sessions organized on the side-lines of the main forum.
There may be space for external partners to organize side events, workshops, consultations or meetings during the Forum. Those interested in organizing such events should indicate their interest with a one-page concept note outlining the title, background, objectives, format, and proposed speakers by 23 February 2023. Please note that, at this stage, the co-organizers cannot guarantee that there will be space for such activities.
A draft programme of the Forum will be available in mid-February. All sessions will be live streamed. Participants will be informed how to join sessions after registering for the Forum.
Queries related to the program, sessions, speakers, participation, side events, etc.:
Harpreet Kaur, Business and Human Rights Specialist, UNDP: firstname.lastname@example.org
The world bank classifies extremely poor as less than $1.90 expenditure per day, moderately poor between $1.90 and $3.20 expenditure per day, and near poor between $3.20 and $5.50 expenditure per day.
International Labour Organization (ILO), 2022. ILOSTAT. Available at https://ilostat.ilo.org/topics/working-poverty/ (accessed on 22 December 2022).
The World Bank, 2022. Migration and Remittances Data. Available at https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/migrationremittancesdiasporaissues/brief/migration-remittances-data (accessed on 22 December 2022). Data covers the period from 1 January 2022 to 2 December 2022.
International Labour Organization (ILO), 2022. ILOSTAT. Available at https://ilostat.ilo.org/topics/informality/ (accessed on 22 December 2022).
UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP), 2022. The Workforce We Need: Social Outlook for Asia and the Pacific. Available at https://www.unescap.org/kp/2022/workforce-we-need-social-outlook-asia-and-pacific (accessed on 22 December 2022