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Concept Note

Concept Note

Background

 

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. Despite these tailwinds, the workers who have fueled development in South Asia have not benefited proportionally from this economic progress.

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 informal or precarious work, labour rights abuses, migration, and risk of losing their work due to, for example, climate change and automation. Workers often 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 often 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 are yet to be protected effectively and treated fairly, for example, by preventing forced and bonded labour and ensuring ethical recruitment.

Those who continue to work in the sub-region face particular challenges related to informality and precarious employment modalities. Indeed, 88% of employment in South Asia is informal. Data indicates that four in five workers in South Asia are situated within the informal economy. Because of this, the vast majority of the workforce is excluded from social protection schemes, making them highly vulnerable to external shocks and economic 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 fixed incomes, social security and benefits. For example, despite the contribution provided to society by food delivery drivers during the COVID-19 pandemic, they continue to be subjected to precarious and dangerous working conditions. They remain unable to achieve an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families.

In addition to these existing 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 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 which 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 fueling development in Asia and the role the States and businesses must play to protect and respect workers' rights. The Forum will discuss and debate the ongoing challenges and opportunities for workers in the sub-region against the backdrop of structural inequalities and power dynamics that results in differential impacts on workers. In particular, the Forum will focus on four sub-thematic issues concerning workers in South Asia, namely: (i) migration, (ii) informal and contract/gig workers; (iii) just transitions; and (iv) supply chains and legislative initiatives on business and human rights.

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), and UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (UNWG) in collaboration with 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 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 focus areas related to workers through thematic sessions, will continue to facilitate idea sharing and peer learning among different stakeholder groups and provide safe spaces and training to particular stakeholder groups.

 

 

 

Forum Objectives

  • To assess worker-related sub-regional progress, challenges and opportunities in implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the UNWG's Roadmap for the next decade of business and human rights, as well as country roadmaps developed during previous Forums

  • To explore linkages between migrant workers, business and human rights, and sustainable development

  • To encourage peer learning among a wide array of stakeholders in South Asia and facilitate the regional exchange of good practices in promoting migrant rights to implement the UNGPs and the MNE Declaration and to achieve the SDGs

  • To provide a platform for safe space discussions and training opportunities to national human rights institutions, human rights defenders and civil society organizations, trade unions, businesses and employers' organizations

 

 

 

Format

 

The 4th UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights will be organized in Kathmandu, Nepal, in a hybrid format over three days: 15-17 March 2022. Safe space sessions, which will be held under the Chatham House Rule and aim to facilitate conversation among specific stakeholder groups, will be organized on 14 March.

 

In addition, there will be some 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 28 January 2023. Please note that, at this stage, the co-organizers cannot guarantee that there will be space for such activities. 

 

A draft program of the Forum will be available in early February 2023. 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: harpreet.kaur@undp.org

 

 

 

References

 

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