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Human Trafficking in BruneiAccording to the 2018 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, there were more than 50,000 cases of human trafficking reported in 148 countries. The report suggests that human traffickers prey mostly on women, children, migrants and unemployed people. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no surprise that the United Nations fears that the number of human trafficking victims will increase. In 2020, 114 million people lost their jobs and children had to stay home. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center has emphasized the vulnerability of those low down in the supply chain, particularly those working in countries that had failed to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in the past. Human trafficking in Brunei is on the rise, prompting action from the government and organizations.

Migrant Workers in Brunei

Wealthy in natural gas and oil, Brunei houses more than 100,000 foreign workers who come in search of low-skill jobs. However, many migrant workers have fallen victim to human trafficking in Brunei. Employers withhold their wages, switch their labor contracts, confiscate their passports or confine them into involuntary servitude through physical abuse. Traffickers mostly take advantage of foreign workers’ illiteracy and lack of knowledge of local labor laws. Debt-based coercion and the withholding of salaries is also a frequent experience for domestic workers. The U.S. Department of State 2020 Report suggests traffickers from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand use Brunei to transit sex slaves.

Vulnerable Women and Children

With one-third of human trafficking victims in East Asia being women, traffickers force thousands of women and girls into prostitution. Thousands of children who are trafficked in Brunei each year experience domestic servitude or sexual exploitation, according to the 2020 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. However, according to the United Nations, there was an influx in cyber trafficking, making the industry worth $8 billion by the end of 2020. During lockdown in Brunei, traffickers often live-streamed sexual abuse of children on social media. Furthermore, thousands of victims experience deportation or receive convictions for crimes without investigation into whether they were trafficking victims.

Brunei’s Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking

Despite passing an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Order in 2019, which differentiates migrant smuggling and human trafficking crimes, Brunei’s government failed to prosecute or convict any traffickers between 2017 and 2021. The last conviction for human trafficking in Brunei was in 2016. The government has also failed to allocate any resources to victims or the repatriation fund upheld in the Order.

This comes after Brunei demonstrated efforts to diminish human trafficking by ratifying the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons (ACTIP) in January 2020. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) created the Convention to affirm its commitment to prevent and combat human trafficking by establishing a legal framework for regional action. As it ratified the Convention, Brunei is responsible for implementing domestic laws to enforce the ACTIP at the local level. However, Brunei’s government has not introduced or amended any laws since the ratification.

Attempting to demonstrate that efforts to stop trafficking are active, Brunei has carried awareness campaigns for employers of foreign workers. These materials are in both English and Malay. In 2020, Brunei’s labor department distributed business cards containing its hotline for reporting violations in more than 500 factories and plants. Nonetheless, Brunei employers withholding wages and confiscating migrant workers’ documentation remain common practices. No improvements received recognition in Brunei’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report in comparison to the previous year.

Outside Recommendations

As the United States Department of State suggested in its 2020 report, to effectively tackle human trafficking in Brunei, it is necessary that the government not only increases efforts to investigate and convict traffickers but that it also allocates funds to protect and shelter victims. Brunei must also ensure labor contracts are in the employees’ native language and that workers can retain a copy of their contract and documentation.

Furthermore, the government should direct awareness campaigns at both employers and employees so they are aware of their rights. Campaigns must be available in different languages, particularly those that are common among migrants such as Indonesian, Thai and Filipino. The government must also offer nondiscriminatory essential services to victims of trafficking to protect people regardless of their nationality.

To prevent traffickers from targeting children, teachers must receive training so they can identify and report cases of suspected abuse. It is also important for children to obtain education about their rights and the dangers of social media. This can stop cyber trafficking from taking place. To combat cyber trafficking, the local government must carry out human trafficking campaigns digitally as well.

The Road Ahead

Brunei’s government has done more than just create hotlines for people to report potential human trafficking or labor violation cases. It has publicized numerous labor inspections of government ministries and agencies to promote transparency and accountability. The government of Brunei has also partaken in the Youth South East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) to continue to raise awareness on human trafficking. By participating in the United State’s YSEALI, young citizens of Brunei attended seminars on how to actively combat human trafficking. As people learn about human trafficking and raise awareness, human trafficking in Brunei will hopefully soon decrease.

Carolina Cadena
Photo: Flickr

women's rights in VietnamWomen in Vietnam form a significant part of the working poor, often subject to dangerous working conditions and earning less income than men. Organizations advocate for women’s rights in Vietnam so that gender quality can be achieved and women can live empowered lives.

The Lives of Women in Vietnam

Although about 79% of women in Vietnam participate in the workforce, the majority of women have informal employment “as migrant domestic workers, homeworkers, street vendors and in the entertainment industry.” Furthermore, men are not expected to do the same unpaid care work as women. Societal standards assign women a lower status in comparison to men. In the labor market, women are often at a disadvantage due to gender inequality. Women and men do not have equal access to education, resources, skills development opportunities or better job prospects.

Oxfam Advocates for Women’s Rights in Vietnam

Oxfam looks to address the gender gap between men and women in Vietnam with its women’s rights program. The program targets impoverished and marginalized women with the aim of empowering them and enabling them to engage in leadership roles and participate in the decision-making that affects them. Oxfam’s strategies include research, advocacy and education. The organization uses “gender-sensitive design and management tools” to conduct research and analyses that illustrate the scope of gender inequality in the country. Oxfam uses its findings to garner support for women’s rights and positively influence the stance of policymakers with regard to women’s rights. Oxfam’s Women Empowerment Mainstreaming, Advocacy and Networking (WEMAN) framework “goes beyond promoting women’s agency to build understanding between men and women and work with mixed groups to look for consensus and collaboration.”

The ACWC

Another initiative addressing gender discrimination in Vietnam is being led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC). The Commission, which had its 21st meeting on December 8, 2020, plans to “fulfill its mandate to achieve protection and empowerment of all women and children in the region.” Speaking to the cause, ACWC chair and Singapore’s ACWC representative for women’s rights, Laura Hwang, says, “Our women and children play indispensable roles in responding to and building back better from the pandemic.”

Hwang explains further that policies, including the ASEAN Recovery Framework for COVID-19, must prioritize the best interests of women and children. The ACWC began in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2010, primarily working to address the trafficking of women and children. The ACWC committed to ensuring that the rights of women and children are fully protected. The focus of the ACWC in Vietnam then extended to women’s involvement in politics, decision-making and democracy. The ACWC also focuses on ensuring quality education for children and ensuring that women have sufficient rights to land and assets in order for women and children to rise out of poverty and progress in life.

The Road Ahead

Deconstructing societal perceptions of women in Vietnam will not happen overnight, but the efforts of organizations seeking to improve women’s rights in Vietnam are already bettering the lives of Vietnamese women. With continued efforts, women’s rights will continue to progress.

Eliza Kirk
Photo: Flickr

Poverty in Southeast AsiaCambodia and other Southeast Asian nations struggled economically well before the pandemic and COVID-19 threatens to send millions of people further into poverty.  The Southeast Asia Strategy Act shows the United States’ commitment to supporting Southeast Asian nations in an effort to promote peace and stability and alleviate poverty in Southeast Asia.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an inter-governmental organization made up of 10 member states, has worked for decades to facilitate economic growth and prosperity in Southeast Asia. Established in 1967 in Thailand, ASEAN was originally comprised of five member states: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Over the next several decades, ASEAN membership grew to 10 nations. This happened when Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam joined the partnership.
The primary aim of ASEAN is to encourage economic cooperation, development and growth in Southeast Asia. ASEAN member states also work together to facilitate the more effective usage of agricultural resources in the region, fostering growth in trade between ASEAN member states and the international community at large.

Finding Security

After the United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017, safety, security and economic prosperity have been uncertain in the region. This led to fears of increased Chinese aggression and dominance in Southeast Asia. ASEAN member states are seeking reassurance that the United States will help the states maintain economic independence from China.

The Southeast Asia Strategy Act, introduced in the House by Reps. Ann Wagner and Joaquin Castro on February 15, 2021, aims to reaffirm the United States’ support for ASEAN member states. The Southeast Asia Strategy Act, which passed in the House in April 2021, would mandate that the federal government “develop and submit to the appropriate congressional committees a comprehensive strategy for engagement with Southeast Asia and ASEAN.” The strategy must include a description to expand “broad based and inclusive economic growth” in the region.

Importantly, ASEAN member states invest heavily in the United States economy — more than China and India combined. These states collectively generate more than half a million U.S. jobs. The United States has never articulated a “comprehensive strategy” in the region before. However, “ASEAN diplomats and U.S. think tanks are eager for the U.S. to be on the record about its plans to engage with ASEAN.” The Southeast Asia Strategy Act would prompt the United States to do just that.

Working Together

ASEAN’s work to facilitate economic growth in Southeast Asia is vital. An ASEAN report in 2020 emphasized the commitment of ASEAN member states to providing a “social protection framework” that is responsive to emerging risks and vulnerabilities in the region, including climate change, disasters and economic crises. According to the report, the social protection framework would help protect citizens from destitution, poverty and decreasing income rates.

By working together, ASEAN member states have made strides toward reducing poverty in Southeast Asia, improving childhood health outcomes and increasing access to higher quality basic education. Thailand improved rates of child stunting from 25% to 11% over a span of 30 years. This was through specific community-based nutritional initiatives in poverty-stricken areas. In addition, Vietnam’s remarkable basic education system shows the benefits that ASEAN member states bring about for citizens. This was successful in part “due to the nation’s commitment to education reform and substantial public spending.”

The Road Ahead

The United States’ support of ASEAN member states is crucial in the effort to mitigate the economic impacts of COVID-19. This is also needed to support future economic growth and prosperity in Southeast Asia. Mandating that the United States federal government devise a cohesive strategy will help in the support of ASEAN member nations. The Southeast Asia Strategy Act will fight poverty in the region by encouraging the United States to help. This will assist in facilitating the important work ASEAN has done to support economic growth over the past several decades.

Thomas McCall
Photo: Flickr

RCEP will benefit Asia's impoverishedOn November 15, 2020, 15 Asia-Pacific countries signed The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP is a free trade agreement (FTA) establishing new relationships in the global economy. The 15 countries that signed the trade deal account for 30% of all global gross domestic product and impact more than two billion people. The new economic opportunities that will emerge from the RCEP will benefit Asia’s impoverished.

The Introduction of the RCEP

In 2011, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit introduced the RCEP. Simultaneously, another free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), was undergoing development. The TPP’s existence failed to come to fruition when former U.S. president, Donald Trump, removed the U.S. from negotiations in 2017. Consequently, this led many Asia-Pacific nations to negotiate with each other to make the RCEP become a reality. The ASEAN Secretariat has declared the RCEP as an accelerator for employment and market opportunities. The RCEP has been seen as a response to the absence of U.S. economic involvement and a form of stimulating the economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

RCEP Regulations

The RCEP has a set of new regulations that made it enticing for many nations to join. As much as 90% of tariffs will be eliminated between participating countries. Moreover, the RCEP will institute common rules for e-commerce and intellectual property. The trade deal will also include high-income, middle-income and low-income nations.

RCEP Benefits for the Philippines

Allan Gepty, a lead negotiator from the Philippines, assures that the RCEP will benefit the low-income country in many ways. The RCEP will mean more investments in sectors such as e-commerce, manufacturing, research and development, financial services and information technology. Moreover, the trade secretary, Ramon Lopez, also believes the Philippines will benefit because the RCEP will bring job opportunities. In a country where the poverty rate stood at 23.3% in 2015, the RCEP will benefit Asia’s impoverished.

Supporting Myanmar’s Economic Growth

According to the World Bank, a way to promote the reduction of poverty in Myanmar is supporting the private sector to create job opportunities. Furthermore, vice president of the Asian Investment Bank (AIIB), Joachim von Amsberg, also believes the RCEP will benefit Asia’s impoverished. He sees the RCEP as a way to grant small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) more access to markets, thus creating more job growth and promoting infrastructure development.

Industries Impacted by the RCEP

Many other nations will benefit from the RCEP as well. Textile and apparel (T&A) is a key sector under the RCEP. While countries such as Australia and Japan have high labor and production costs, many others do not. The RCEP will increase investment to lower-cost and less skilled countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. The trade deal will also impact the country of Vietnam. Vietnam will benefit from its exports which include footwear, automobiles and telecommunications. Furthermore, Vietnam is could also benefit from the exporting of agriculture and fisheries products. Malaysia anticipates greater opportunities in travel, tourism and the aviation industry. Malaysia is expected to increase its GDP between 0.8% and 1.7% through the RCEP.

The Potential for Poverty Reduction

The RCEP is the biggest trade deal in Asia-Pacific’s history. The trade deal is predicted to add US$186 billion to the global economy and 0.2% to the gross domestic product of each participating nation. Also, free trade agreements allow emerging economies to become more sustainable. According to the World Bank, poverty is reduced by boosting international trade. Global trade expands the number of quality jobs and encourages economic growth. The RCEP came at a time when there are future uncertainties due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts. Many anticipate that the RCEP will benefit Asia’s impoverished.

Andy Calderon
Photo: Flickr

education in IndonesiaAs it stands, education in Indonesia lacks inclusivity and accessibility. The education system in Indonesia struggled from the start, making it harder to reform years of damage. However, there are steps being taken to improve the learning experience of Indonesian children and adolescents. This includes technology use, improved teacher education and more adequate education spending.

Education in Indonesia

Reports indicate that compared to other Southeast Asian countries, education in Indonesia is lacking in quality and effectiveness. For example, statistics display that 55% of students who pass through the Indonesian education system are functionally literate. This is high when compared to 14% in Vietnam.

Currently, education is compulsory in Indonesia and offered free of cost up until grade nine. Although the government is working on providing free schooling for grades 10-12, this has not yet been achieved. Early education is prioritized and there are high rates of pre-school attendance. Yet, there are disparities between genders and between urban and rural areas. For example, the nationwide preschool GER (gross enrollment ratio) is significantly lower in Papua and Maluku, Indonesia’s remote islands, at less than 50% in 2014.

Tertiary education attainment rates are also very low in Indonesia. The percentage of Indonesians above the age of 25 that had obtained, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in 2016, was less than 9%. This rate is the lowest of all the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). There is little incentive to complete tertiary education as the unemployment rate is high, even for those with degrees.

Teacher Education

Until the mid-2000s, Indonesian teachers could teach with just a diploma in the field. In fact, many elementary teachers held only a secondary school qualification. According to statistics, only 200,000 out of 1.25 million teachers had a university degree in 2006. However, legislation has made quality teacher education a priority. Presently, all teachers are required to have completed a four-year higher education in the form of a degree or a high-level diploma. Moreover, in order to be deemed qualified as a public school educator, one must undergo more rigorous certification and training requirements.

Technology for Remote Learning

As of early 2020, COVID-19 added further challenges to education in Indonesia and its already unstable system. COVID-19’s severe effects inhibited Indonesian students from attending school in person yet many of them lack access to internet and are unable to participate in remote learning. However, a recent initiative to collect second-hand cellphones may improve the education situation for Indonesian students.

Ghina Ghaliya, a journalist in Jakarta, was inspired to find a solution to this problem. When the pandemic started, Ghaliya started a group with 11 other journalists, providing food and money to underprivileged Indonesians. However, during the pandemic, the group shifted its focus to enable children to continue learning remotely. Ghaliya and her journalist friends began collecting second-hand cellphones and monetary donations so that children could acquire internet access for their classes. As of November 2020, 200 phones were collected and more than $35,000 worth of donations were given to the group to acquire more cellphones and prepaid internet plans.

Education Spending

Government expenditure on education has increased in recent years. Added funding allows for a more enriching learning experience for Indonesian students. For example, with increased spending, there has been a larger budget for hiring more teachers. As of 2017, the student-to-teacher ratio dropped from 20:1 to 16:1 in elementary schools. This exemplifies how with further spending and more teachers per student, one’s learning experience is augmented.

The education system in Indonesia does not adequately and equally serve its students. However, with initiatives such as allocating money toward education, improving teacher education and incorporating technology into curriculums, education in Indonesia is improving.

Ella Kaplun
Photo: Flickr

Lack of Skilled Workers in Vietnam
In Vietnam, skilled laborers are a commodity. Only 12% of Vietnam’s 57 million workers are highly skilled. The Vietnamese Government decided to enter into a socialist market economy in the late 1980s. It aimed to mitigate the sluggish economy’s failure to meet goals. Still, there is a lack of skilled workers in Vietnam specializing in IT and other high-tech sectors to allow the economy to flourish. However, the World Bank drafted a new higher education plan in April 2020. The Higher Education Reform Agenda (HERA) sought to stimulate development in areas that Vietnam’s former education plan missed.

Lack of Skilled Workers in Developing Countries

The lack of skilled workers in Vietnam is not a new problem. One-third of the working-aged population in low- and middle-income countries are not skilled enough for a higher paying job. The lack of skilled workers keeps these countries stuck in poverty with people earning less income and enduring poorer living conditions. Vietnam was once one of the poorest countries in the world after recovering from 30 years of war. It is now a lower-middle-income country despite having a higher education enrollment rate lower than most other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries.

Vietnam’s Growing Economy

Vietnam’s GDP has been growing steadily, increasing by 7% in 2019. Furthermore, Vietnam is soon to be one of the fastest-growing economies alongside India and Bangladesh. In Vietnam’s race for growth between 2002 and 2018, the country’s GDP per capita increased by 2.7 times, surpassing $2,700 in 2019 and 45 million people left poverty. Vietnam has been encountering major successes that promise better living conditions in the future. Still, the country has work to do. The lack of skilled workers in Vietnam remains dire. With the proper education and training, people can benefit from more employment opportunities, higher incomes and improved standards of living.

HERA Takes a Step Toward Improvements

Acknowledging Vietnam’s need for an economic boost, the Vietnamese Government drafted the Higher Education Reform Agenda (HERA) in 2005. According to the HERA, the country would improve higher education between the years 2006 and 2020. The HERA projected goals that included hitting 45% higher education enrollments by 2020, employing 35% of academic staff with a doctorate degree in comparison to 15% and providing funding for university research.

Though experts in education and economics deemed the HERA overly ambitious and without structure, it had some success. The World Bank observed mostly substantial improvement in higher education by 2015. For example, in 2005, HERA sought to hire 60% of tertiary education teachers holding a master’s degree and 35% of teachers with a doctorate. Although the number of teachers with a doctorate had barely increased from 23%, 59% of tertiary teachers had a master’s degree by 2016.

Strategy to Improve Higher Education

In April 2020, the World Bank created a report outlining specific goals to increase Vietnam’s universities’ production of human capital. The report, entitled “Improving the Performance of Higher Education in Vietnam,” drew up specific goals for Vietnam’s universities to reach by 2030 using success stories like the state of California, the U.K. and South Korea. With implementation, the report will create a universal focus across bank and government entities to improve funding, enrollment and equity.

The plans involve increasing the number of applicants, improving the curriculum, creating structured application processes to accept more talented students, funding research more and being more inclusive towards ethnic minorities and lower-income Vietnamese students. The report addresses establishing links with industries and the private sector earlier on in students’ higher education. This would occur by providing internships and partnerships between students and companies to ensure relevant, proficient skilled work results.

The government still has a lot of work to do regarding the lack of skilled workers in Vietnam. Fortunately, plans are underway to invest in greater human capital. With better coordination between its market, government and educational forces, Vietnam will soon effectively produce workers qualified enough to boost the economy.

Alyssa Ranola
Flickr