ASEAN lawyers and trade unionists agree to develop regional guidelines on freedom of association of workers in the ASEAN

From 1 and 2 September 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly, Clément Nyaletsossi VOULE, and lawyers and trade union representatives met and discussed challenges faced in Southeast Asia on exercising the right to freedom of association of workers.

The event was organized by the ICJ together with Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), and supported by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

At the meeting’s conclusion, the participants reached a consensus to work for the development regional guidelines on freedom of association of workers in the ASEAN and agreed to form a Working Group that would be tasked to develop these guidelines. The Working Group nominated by the participants is composed of trade union representatives at the national level, lawyers, among other experts.

In his keynote speech, the Special Rapporteur emphasized that freedom of association is a fundamental right for all workers without which they lack the power to fight discrimination and injustice in the workplace. He also explained the link between the rights to freedom of association and expression, “Freedom of association is closely related to freedom of expression as they both represent opening up of space for dialogue and an enabling environment where unions can participate freely.”

The participants at the meeting were practicing lawyers from Southeast Asia focusing on labor and employment and trade unions leaders and representatives. Other participants included representatives from human rights organizations addressing business and human rights and the right to freedom of association; the ASEAN Secretariat; the International Labor Organization (ILO), the ASEAN Trade Union Council (ATUC), and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

“Shrinking political and civic space combined with inequality and social marginalization are key challenges at the heart of business-related human rights violations in Southeast Asia,” said Katia Chirizzi, Deputy Regional Representative for UN Human Rights.  “Governments must implement their obligations to respect, protect and promote human rights in relation to business activities. It is equally critical to ensure that businesses meet their responsibilities to respect human rights.”

During the meeting, the participants also discussed the role of women in labour organizing and the additional challenges women face when they exercise the right to freedom of association in the workplace. Betty Yolanda, Asia Regional Manager of the Business and Human Rights Resource Center (BHRRC) said: “Women workers face multiple forms of discrimination and challenges. They are fighting for their rights as workers in the company and at the same time they are also fighting the patriarchy.”

The participants identified common challenges confronted in the region where workers’ rights to freedom of association face legal and physical limitations. Migrant workers, women workers and workers in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) were identified as being particularly at risk in exercising their rights.

“It is crucial that we discuss these challenges openly and with all stakeholders, particularly issues that affect those who work in the informal sector, and other vulnerable communities such as migrant workers.  Special investment frameworks, special economic zones and other government-led initiatives meant to attract foreign investment potentially create new opportunities to increase transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, they are more often used to justify lowering human rights standards, or impose new restrictions that act to limit workers and communities abilities to express their grievances or exercise their rights to association,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.


Boram Jang, International Legal Adviser, Asia & the Pacific Programme, e: boram.jang(a)

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