Voices from our partners: Thomas Thomas of the ASEAN CSR Network

“I hope we will soon reach a stage when no one has to choose between principles and profits. It will only be principled profits.” – Thomas Thomas

Article | 01 October 2021
Thomas Thomas spoke to the RSCA program in October

Thomas Thomas is the head of the ASEAN CSR Network, a regional network devoted to promoting and enabling responsible business conduct in ASEAN to achieve sustainable, equitable and inclusive social, environmental and economic development. With a union background, he started the Singapore Compact for Corporate Social Responsibility in 2005 and the ASEAN CSR network in 2011. He also had worked with Singapore's consumer organisation, cooperatives among other roles. The Responsible Supply Chains in Asia programme caught up with him for a short chat about his experience in CSR in the Asian context, his take on the importance of international norms and what his organisation is doing to promote responsible business practices. Opinions expressed by Mr Thomas are his own

What are your biggest allies in promoting CSR in the ASEAN context? 

Everyone who supports CSR and social justice is our ally. CSR is not about how they spend money. It is about how money is made. It is beyond PR, charity or philanthropy. It is about treating people and the environment with respect, dignity and fairness.

Does public opinion in destination markets have a value or impact?
Public opinion is of definite value. It reflects societal values that go beyond legal compliance to the moral imperative to do the right thing. They are our allies with governments setting the rules and compliance of all stakeholders. Even in countries that talk so much about social responsibility, their business practices here may not necessarily be ideal or consistent. Some have a different set of values at home and when they go to other locations. That said, public opinion has been very powerful. They shine light on these inconsistencies.
Public pressure is good. In democracies, public pressure influences voters, and every government listens to their voters. There are businesses and business leaders who will respect labour and human rights because it is the right thing to do. The rest need persuasion.
I think the other area which is moving a lot is actually legislation. National legislation and regional laws are changing. The EU, for example, now have or will have laws that will impact trade in the form of the Green Deal and the Human Rights Due Diligence. When the UK passed the anti-bribery act, businesses in the region started taking anti-corruption measures more seriously. But of course, the laws have to be enforced to have any impact. I guess what is needed is good laws and good enforcement of the laws.

It’s more common now, especially for the EU, to build sustainability chapters into their free trade agreements or their trade agreements. Do you think they have an impact?
Oh yes. One of the biggest movements we had in Southeast Asia when we were able to talk about responsible business and the decent work agenda to ASEAN leadership was in 2015. In -2016, ASEAN Labour Ministers adopted the ASEAN CSR guidelines on labour. The driver behind this was the trans-pacific partnership coordinated by the US and many countries in the region. It had clauses on labour and the environment. These clauses were different from the earlier FTAs, in that there was a clear expectation for enforcement and monitoring.
How effective the FTAs are depends on how it is implemented. This is all about trade, so how much do your principles hold up if there’s a conflict between your principles and the quest for profits? I hope we will soon reach a stage when no one has to choose between principles and profits. It will only be principled profits.

What about the role of international norms?
I think the international norms are useful and good as they define expectations and standards. We need to work is building consensus among stakeholders. In southeast Asian countries and ASEAN governments works on consensus, so even you can’t get everybody to say yes, you should at least make sure nobody says no.
The norms will become standards by practice. Sometimes in human rights, we have to sit behind closed doors and say, “Are humans in Asia of a different value than humans in other parts of the world? So why can’t we apply the same standards for humans all over the world?” I think, in that sense, international norms are extremely useful. It gives you benchmarks; it tells you what is expected.

How do you measure CSR compliance in Asian countries in your organisation? What are your metrics?
It’s hard to measure values. It is not possible to measure attributes like honesty, integrity, trust, honour. We, therefore, measure disclosure on the assumption businesses report what they do. What are you saying? Stakeholders and others can see and question if there are gaps between rhetoric and practice. What are you saying about labour rights? Do you have policies in place for environmental standards, respect for people, etcetera? I think we look at disclosure, and the idea is that if you disclose it at the rhetorical level, then we can hold you accountable for what you say. Our studies on sustainable reporting, business integrity, or business and human rights have all focused on disclosure. The best way to verify the performance is not only certification but for the stakeholders to confirm whether it is there or not. Stakeholder engagement, involvement and verifications are the way to go forward.

I guess it also depends on the relative status or power relationship between those stakeholders. The impression we have is that the position of workers is relatively disempowered in Asia and many Asian countries - is that a fair assessment?
It is very fair. There is an unequal power relationship. You can see that in the fact that ratifications on the convention on the right to collective bargaining and freedom of association are among the least ratified core conventions in the region—only four countries have ratified: Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. But even there in these countries, I think the labour movement has real challenges to function effectively. Obviously, a strong union movement is the best way to do that in terms of accountability and worker voice on labour rights.

Given the imperfect world in which you operate, what are your organisation’s recommendations or next steps to move the needle in this conversation?
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights specifically mentioned the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The Global Compact, OECD Guidelines, ISO 26000 and other global and regional initiatives list them as part of human rights and labour rights. Therefore the best way forward is to promote bipartisan and tri-partisan dialogue at the workplace and at the national level. Tripartism at a higher level and bipartisan agreements are very difficult because of the power relationships and other constraints. We need strong trade union representation and strong employer organisations to represent their members and arrive at agreements that will improve conditions for everyone.
At my organisation, we started saying we should not just focus on pushing for national action plans on business and human rights but let’s push harder for due diligence for businesses. Pressure them to make sure that when they do the operations, their commercial decisions are adjusted to take into account people factors, environmental factors and adjusted to accommodate those ideals. Now legislation from the EU will give value to the due diligence process.

Has the cause of CSR been advanced or damaged by COVID, or are they separate conversations?
I think that, actually, Covid exposed weaknesses in society. I believe this also exposed the impact of climate change. I think overnight, you could see when there were lockdowns, and the environmental conditions suddenly looked better. The other very important thing was that it showed how interdependent we are. In the old days, you could have poor people in the ghettos and have gated communities for the rich and the prosperous. But the virus does not differentiate, so the weakness anywhere is weakness everywhere.
COVID, in many senses, has raised the importance of responsible business and the decent work agenda. I hope this realisation will be converted to real and permanent change for the better and that we do not back to our bad old days once the crisis is over.

Mr Thomas presented on behalf of the CSR ASEAN Network at a recent Responsible Supply Chains in Asia event: “Policy Framework for the Promotion of Responsible Business and Corporate Social Responsibility in Thailand”: A policy dialogue in the context of COVID-19 and the upcoming trade and investment opportunities for Thailand.