The Future of Work in the Mekong Subregion
Over the last few decades, the Mekong Subregion (comprised of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam) has liberalized trade and opened up its economies to foreign investment, catalyzing extensive economic growth. As part of the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN), the fifth-largest economic bloc in the world, the region is also a key geostrategic and trade sphere of influence for the United States. However, myriad factors, including unsustainable infrastructure development along the Mekong River, a large informal sector, falling trade and tourism, and persistent deficiencies in labor and human rights, have threatened to halt the region’s progress. Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these trends. Despite these developments, in the medium term there are also opportunities for these countries to better prepare their economies and workers to compete on the world stage by addressing competitiveness and lagging productivity issues, diversifying their economies toward higher value-added supply chains, and strengthening education quality and skills mismatches. This study identifies the main long-term challenges and drivers impacting their labor markets and proposes key actions to prepare these economies for the changes ahead, with a particular focus on Myanmar and Cambodia.
The authors would like to highlight that this report was completed prior to the military coup that took place in Myanmar on February 1, 2021. They acknowledge that as events unfold, instability in Myanmar will impact the future of work in the country in several ways, including trade, foreign investments, human rights, labor standards, and education. The situation will also affect diplomatic relations with other countries in the Mekong region.
This report would not have been possible without the generous support of the Mekong Future Initiative. Special thanks to Blair Sullivan and Bo Carlson for their research support.