‘Socio-economic disparity’ is a term that has been brought into global focus over the last few years. Attention has been drawn not only to economic disparity, but also to the disparity that results from inequality in social resources, which in turn are linked to social class, earnings and income distribution, access to education and health, all of which contribute to a sense of well-being. With the tremendous growth in the economic, industrial and innovative sectors, the disparity gap in countries in South East Asia has never been wider. This can be illustrated by the statistics of countries such as Thailand, where the richest one percent controls 58 percent of the country’s wealth, or in Indonesia, where the four wealthiest men have more wealth than the poorest 100 million people. Similar scenarios can be seen in other countries in this sub-region.
The struggles of most countries in addressing the issue of socio-economic disparity have derived from inadequate inclusion and insufficient consideration of the rule of law in law and policies. The rule of law is the fundamental concept of having just and unbiased statutes and policies, accountable public and private sectors, a transparent legislative process and, most importantly, access to an impartial system of justice. These principles are to ensure that ‘no one is left behind,’ which is essentially the same underlying principle of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Both aim to ensure that all people regardless of their social and economic status can enjoy the same rights and be eligible for the same treatment.
With the determination to instill mutual recognition and understanding of the rule of law and policy-making in the quest of achieving sustainable development,the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ) in collaboration with the Institute for Global Law and Policy (IGLP) at Harvard Law School,offered the Third TIJ-IGLP Workshops on the Rule of Law and Policy for Scholars and Emerging Leaders. The workshops brought together 140 emerging leaders and policymakers from 45 countries with diverse backgrounds and expertise. According to Prof. Dr. Kittipong Kittayarak, the Executive Director of the TIJ, it is important to build a network of cooperation and engage people from all sectors because ‘the rule of law is too important to be handled by lawyers alone’.
Access to the justice system is a fundamental human right. Lack of such access is part of the cause and effect of socio-economic disparity. Stakeholders should seek to develop and implement effective laws and policy in which the rule of law is the prerequisite to ensuring social inclusion and social justice. However, good policy cannot be developed merely by starting from the obvious assumptions or the desirable outcomes. Instead, we need to put things into perspective and ask good ‘policy questions’. As noted by Mr. Osama Siddique of IGLP-Harvard, a good policy question is one that considers all relevant stakeholders and also the conversion, separation, and overlapping of the law and policy, so that these can in practice reach out to all people equally and sustainably.
Equally important, the change in the social and economic landscape, as seen from the emerging markets and the rise of modern technological advances, have to be considered for policy reformulation as well. With such rapid changes, we can see that the socio-economic disparity gap is widening. As reflected by Prof. Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai, Thailand’s former Deputy Prime Minister and an Honorary Council Member of IGLP, the question therefore is how we can narrow the gaps among countries with different levels of economic development, social inclusion, and techno-literacy.
The socio-economic disparity and lack of access to justice can have a crippling effect on vulnerable groups even more so than on others, especially marginalized groups, women, children, persons with disabilities and migrants. As portrayed by the case studies discussed in the ‘Problem Labs’ at the Workshops, migrant workers, especially in fisheries, seafood industries, and construction sector, have suffered most significantly, to the point of inhumane and dangerous working conditions, with minimum or even no wages. They have little to no access to health and to a reasonable standard of living, let alone to the justice system, and are extremely vulnerable to exploitation which forces them to live in fear of their own lives and that of their families. The laws and policy to address this issue have to induce, firstly, an enabling environment through social norms and traditions which uphold access to justice. Secondly, the justice system has to be on the supply side of the equation, where facilities and institutions should be provided to allow for and facilitate access to justice. Thirdly, the understanding of the people of their rights and eligibility has to be strengthened.
Also another phenomenon derived from socio-economic disparity, indebtedness, is a contributing factor. Indebtedness is an invisible chain that strips people of the life and well-being to which they aspire. Nonetheless, poverty may not be caused directly or solely by indebtedness, but also by the lack of financial inclusion for low-income people. Even the rising popularity of microfinance or microcredit is not a sufficient remedy, since such financial instruments are a downstream solution which can be impractical and still require corresponding laws and policies to enable effective implementation. Furthermore, access to capital and financial inclusion can induce a higher rate of indebtedness. This has become evident in cases of migrant workers who, even with access to microcredit, have to pay an unaffordable amount of fees during their legal migration process. The result for them is a serious financial burden, and they fall into a cycle of debt-bondage or forced labour in order to pay off their debts. These loopholes in the laws and policies can be addressed by having laws and policies that offer financial inclusion and at the same time do not impose unreasonable costs and expenses that would defeat these very purposes. Also, in respect of corporations, it was emphasized that employers should be able to enjoy the benefit of complying with the laws and policies without having to suffer from a higher cost of business from such compliance.
In conclusion, the TIJ – IGLP-Harvard Workshops emphasized the importance of building a wide understanding that the rule of law requires a multi-stakeholder approach and the shared perspectives of legal practitioners, policy makers, the private sector, NGOs, civil society organizations and the society as a whole. Good laws are not enough to guarantee a good solution, but such laws have to be based on the rule of law where fundamental human rights, justice and equality are the main pillars.