JAKARTA — Governments across Asia are seeking to bring millions of informal workers into regulated employment, and stem a major economic drag on the world’s fastest-growing region. Bangladesh, Indonesia and China have taken steps this month that could help formalize employment for a vast pool of workers that are struggling on the margins of their economies, many as self-employed merchants or agricultural laborers. The World Bank estimates that informal workers make up 47% of jobs in the East Asia and Pacific region, with the figure rising to between 60% and 80% in lower income countries such as Myanmar and Laos. The government in Dhaka last week signed a $250 million deal with the institution aimed at supporting efforts “to create large-scale, better-paid and inclusive jobs.”
KUALA LUMPUR — Businesses in Southeast Asia are increasingly counting the cost of land grabs, more than half of which result in delayed projects and nearly three-quarters of which lead to lawsuits, according to a wide-ranging research report. Out of a sample of 51 major land disputes surveyed across the region, all but 6 remain unresolved, meaning that Southeast Asia is the region most prone to land conflict in the world. That is according to research published Tuesday by UK-based consultancy TMP Systems and the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition of land rights activists funded in part by the British and Norwegian governments. That 88% of land disputes in Southeast Asia are not resolved puts the region above the 61% global average, according to the research, which covers land disputes dating from 2001.
JAKARTA — Official crackdowns on emigrants in Malaysia and Thailand have cast further doubt on over prospects that member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can finalize a long discussed deal on migrant workers’ rights. In June and July around 100,000 mostly Myanmar migrant workers fled Thailand after the military government in Bangkok announced hefty new fines for undocumented workers and their employers. Then, starting July 1, Malaysia made a series of arrests of alleged undocumented migrant workers, affecting more than 3,000 workers and around 60 employers accused of giving work to illegals. These tough actions — though a reprise of previous years’ crackdowns — come as the region’s governments mull proposed enhancements to the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, signed in Cebu in the central Philippines during one of Manila’s past tenures as the group’s chair. Two years after the Cebu declaration, ASEAN countries started moves toward a set of region-wide legal norms, but progress has been slow. With Manila again chairing ASEAN this year, there has been a renewed push to address migrant rights — an important social and political issue in the Philippines.
JAKARTA — Asia is home to more than half the world’s most dynamic retail hubs, according to new research that reinforces images of the region’s mall-strewn megacities. The research, by professional services and investment management company JLL, says 12 of the fastest-growing retail cities are in Asia, with eight in China alone — another indication that global economic growth is increasingly driven by the Asia-Pacific region. JLL lists Dubai as the world’s fastest-growing retail destination, with Shanghai second and Beijing third. Places 9 to 13 are occupied by Bangkok, Chengdu, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila, respectively. Only two European cities make the top 20 — Moscow and Istanbul — with none from Africa. Mexico City is the sole city from the western hemisphere, sitting at number 19.
JAKARTA – Unlike the imposing and often inaccessible buildings of the European Union in Brussels, ASEAN’s low-rise offices sit in the shadow of a partly constructed overhead railway in the southern part of Indonesia’s traffic-clogged capital. Nine months after the group’s 10 members established the ASEAN Economic Community, which aims to promote the free movement of goods, services, capital and labor, the headquarters symbolizes both ASEAN’s aspirations and its limitations. The EU was previously known as the European Economic Community, but ASEAN’s adoption of the “community” moniker does not mean it will emulate Europe’s radical, sovereignty-pooling measures, such as a common currency, central bank and free movement of labor. “The appetite to surrender sovereignty simply is not there,” said Jayant Menon, lead economist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila. “I don’t see a single currency coming into play in ASEAN, and I don’t see that as a bad thing.”
KUALA LUMPUR — It was a meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, held in the the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, in a region known for historically close trading links with the Southeast Asian countries to the south, including Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Surprisingly, given the location and the commemoration, ASEAN member state Malaysia issued a statement on behalf of the bloc criticizing China over its territorial claims in the contested South China Sea. The statement noted that recent developments in the disputed sea — where China has been building artificial islands and constructing what it calls “defensive facilities” while the U.S., an ally of the Philippines, has been conducting naval patrols and reconnaissance flights in the name of freedom of navigation — had raised concerns about a spillover clash with China. Those fears, the statement added, had “the potential to undermine peace”. “We stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea,” the ASEAN foreign ministers said. But in an about-turn more startling than the earlier statement, Malaysia, which chaired the bloc in 2015 before passing the leadership to Laos, a Communist-ruled country with close ties to China, led the way in issuing a sudden retraction, saying there were “urgent amendments to be made.”
SINGAPORE — While China’s economy continues to grow much faster than those of Japan and most Western countries, according to official figures, the country’s mix of slowing imports, wobbly stock markets and a weakening currency is a growing concern for Southeast Asian countries that have grown increasingly dependent on trade with Asia’s largest economy. China’s official 7% annual rate of growth in gross domestic product in 2015 is the lowest in a quarter century, down from the 7.4% posted in 2014. It leaves Southeast Asian countries vulnerable to slowing Chinese growth, six years after Beijing signed a landmark trade agreement with the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations. As China’s economy expanded to become the world’s second biggest, trade between Southeast Asia and China grew, as the latter sought raw materials for massive infrastructure and city building. However, since riding out the 2008 financial crisis that brought several Western economies close to ruin, China has slowly tried to shift the basis of economic growth from investment to domestic consumption. As a result, China’s demand for commodities has declined. Jia Qingguo, Dean of International Studies at Peking University, said that “the Chinese economy and the Southeast Asian economies are integrated, and the slowdown in the Chinese economy will affect Southeast Asia in a negative way.”
VIENTIANE — The capital of Laos is a low-rise, low-key city, especially when compared with the hulking high-rises and bustling streets of better known Southeast Asian cities such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. But Vientiane is fast shedding its sedate reputation amid a building boom ahead of a series of international summits that will bring U.S. President Barack Obama, China’s President Xi Jinping and a host of other world leaders to the city in 2016. Construction cranes tower over the city’s two- and three-storey shophouses and hotels — the din of diggers and drills drowning out the once quiet capital’s increasingly dense traffic. “So many shopping malls now — around 20 going up all around the city,” said Pouthong Sengchanh, standing over a model of the Vientiane New World project — a mix of shops, restaurants and offices newly stretching along the city’s Mekong riverfront.
KUALA LUMPUR — Laos, as the incoming chair of the 2016 Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has urged member states to agree on a region-wide regime for Special Economic Zones, which have proliferated in recent years. “We think that a framework for Special Economic Zones would be good to set up because we see that in each ASEAN member state, we develop different economic zones,” Laos Minister of Industry and Commerce Khemmani Pholsena told a business forum in Kuala Lumpur during the recent ASEAN summit. Whether Laos can persuade other governments in the region to sign up for a level SEZ playing field is questionable — despite the signing of the ASEAN community in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 22, just hours before Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ceded the chairmanship of ASEAN to Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong. “SEZs in Malaysia and the industrial estates in the eastern seaboard of Thailand are much more advanced than SEZs in CLMV [an abbreviation for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam]. Therefore, to create a common set of rules might be difficult,” said Vanthana Nolintha.
BOUNG PHAO — The muck-covered water pump chugging away on the bank of the nearby Mekong River means that Bounloum Phonimavong’s two acres of garden have plenty of water all year round. Coriander, chinese cabbage and spring onion are among the cash crops grown here for sale in the capital Vientiane, around a 90 minute drive away. “We have to work hard here as this is all organic, which means we cannot use the pesticides, so we have to keep a close watch on the crops for bugs,” the 51-year-old mother of three says. Getting that organic produce to market means, for now, selling mostly at home to consumers in Vientiane, many of whom are skeptical about the value of buying organic produce.