Reflections From a Trip to Asia

Reflections From A Trip To Asia
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During a recent trip to Southeast Asia the lives of some hidden communities and new considerations and issues came to my attention that relate to our Faith Consistent Investing/Socially Responsible Investing/Environment, Social, Governance work. The most chilling and indeed the one that might have the widest implications was an article in the Bangkok Post, January 29th, that raised the issue of the Communist Party's preparations for maintaining their controlling grip on Chinese citizenry, especially as the private sector expands and grows stronger.

In light of the government decision to scrap or sell off a number of state owned and run enterprises since the mid 1980's, the article raised a red flag (no pun intended) about the plan that is being implemented to develop party cells within the workforces of private corporations as a way to monitor activities and stay abreast of any developing issues or potential problems. I am not sure that I have heard about this issue being listed among the priorities or questions that we are raising with companies that have business operations or relationships in China.
In Bangladesh, the plight of the tea estate workers was a more personal and painful experience. Tea estates with well known names like Duncan and Finlay occupy a significant footprint in the tea sector in Bangladesh and many of their workers live in small villages that are located within the estates themselves. Families have lived there for years, are totally dependent on the tea estate owners and face enormous challenges when it come to securing the basic necessities of food, education and medical care for themselves and their dependents. Workers' salaries amount to about 50 cents a day for those who have jobs and the communities are totally dependent on the church and other nongovernmental organizations for schools, educational materials and medical needs. I wondered why the plight of tea estate workers does not merit the same level of concern that other human dignity and human rights issues command.

In a meeting at the US embassy in Dhaka one of the participants mentioned that he was excited about the International Labor Organization's "Better Work" program that was coming to Bangladesh. I know that we have discussed this in the circle of investors at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and monitored their pilot project in Cambodia. I wonder if the "Better Work" initiative in Bangladesh might be a way for us to address the garment industry issues that have surfaced in our conversations with companies who source products in Bangladesh?
In Greater Bangkok I met a number of Burmese refugees whose children were receiving educational assistance from church groups and NGOs, as the government of Thailand does not admit most of the children into the country's formal education system. In conversations with local leaders I learned that adult Burmese refugees are primarily employed in Bangkok's food processing factories, and thereby supply a silent and compliant labor force in this very important sector. Their numbers are estimated to be about 800,000. I would not be surprised if the plight of these workers and this sector flies below the radar of our FCI/ SRI community.

Reading reports of the visit of Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to the World Economic Forum in Davos brought the issue of human trafficking front and center, as she was asked a question about the efforts of her government to address this very critical issue. Thailand's reputation for "sex tourism" came up in a number of the conversations that I had during my meetings. It was a clear affirmation of the priority that we have given this affront to human dignity at ICCR.
My last stop was in Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat and learn about the amazing and rich legacy of religious and cultural heritage that was uncovered in the middle of the last century. This visit, however, was also the occasion for a meeting with the local Catholic church and a nearby Jesuit retreat center. The latter site was a vivid reminder of the very long-lasting destructive impact that bombs and other munitions that were employed during the Vietnam War, and the land mines that were employed during the subsequent civil war and internal strife. Even the figure of Christ on the cross was depicted with the lower half on one leg missing. Many of the murals and paintings were vivid reminders of the same destructive legacy. Music groups playing at different tourist sites were primarily composed of people missing limbs, or who had disfigured faces.

This experience was a heart wrenching reminder and motivation about the importance of the international anti land mining campaign that many of us support and the screens that many in the FCI/SRI community have adopted and continue to support about land mine and cluster bomb manufacturers and suppliers.

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