Rural Empowerment

The ASEAN Confederation of Employers (ACE) has an agenda saturated with challenges. Its conference on 20 April 2018 addressed challenges, opportunities, strategies, responses, public-private partnerships and the ACE framework; in the context of upskilling. The ACE aims to design policies that better respond ASEAN’s skills development needs. While there is a framework in place, ensuring skills development in member states across the region is not going to be easy. 

Resources, development, institutions and policies vary across the ten countries. Large rural populations need reskilling, which is especially difficult because they are deprived of basic education. Often, national programmes do not reach rural societies; people are either unaware of upgrading opportunities or they are ill-equipped to benefit from such government initiatives. Employers realise that skills development programmes alone are insufficient. A holistic approach to reskilling rural populations is a necessity.

The number of rural workers in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia has significantly decreased. At the same time, rural-urban disparities have increased. Rural dwellers have meagre incomes and their education, health care, and other social services are sub-standard. Many do not even have access to basic facilities.

Despite urbanisation, rural areas are still a critical source of employment. They account for three in four jobs in Cambodia and Myanmar. In Indonesia, less than half of all employment is rural. Many rural workers are employed in agriculture. However, the rural economy is diverse. Besides agriculture, rural Cambodians work in garment-manufacturing factories. In Vietnam, rural people work in the production of footwear and garments. The manufacture of food and beverages is a prominent source of rural employment in Thailand. Construction, wholesale and retail trade are other sectors in the rural economy.

Land, water and education are crucial resources for advanced agricultural production, better off-farm jobs and a smoother transition to the urban economy. Education suffers the most. Rural people’s education in Indonesia is compromised by a lack of space and inadequate remuneration for teachers. Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia have weak school systems and parental engagement is rare. Such disadvantages prevent rural populations from acquiring the necessary education for attaining high-skilled jobs. 

An ILO (International Labour Organisation) study has found that education is key for rural workers to access better jobs. Employers cannot maximise benefits from skills development programmes without improving the rural population’s access to education. With education, rural workers will be empowered to take advantage of upskilling opportunities.

Skills gaps are more prominent in rural areas. Underqualified rural workers often outnumber those with relevant skills or education. Overqualified rural workers do not receive remuneration corresponding to their qualification. How will ASEAN governments and employers close this gap? Qualifications of the rural workforce must match jobs, if labour inefficiency is to be avoided.

Technological advancements increase the demand for automation and decrease human involvement. The present jobs held by rural workers will become obsolete. Employers need to reskill workers for new jobs. Before that, governments and employers must ensure that rural workers are empowered with the appropriate education to take advantage of upskilling.

Appropriate economic and labour market policies are important. In addition, agrarian workers must be introduced to innovations in agriculture. They also need to acquire skills for rural-urban migration, should they become unable to sustain an agricultural lifestyle. How are ASEAN governments and employers going to reach out to these people? Perhaps the journey to empower should begin with revamping rural education and training.

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