Brunei Darussalam is a monarchy governed since 1967 by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah. Emergency powers in place since 1962 allow the sultan to govern with few limitations on his authority. The Legislative Council (LegCo), composed of appointed, indirectly elected, and ex officio members, met during the year and exercised a purely consultative role in recommending and approving legislation and budgets.
The Royal Brunei Police Force and the Internal Security Department have responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of order within the country and come under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office, respectively. For crimes that fall under the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which the government fully implemented in April, both entities are supported by religious enforcement officers from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Departments of Labor and Immigration in the Ministry of Home Affairs also hold limited law enforcement powers for labor and immigration offenses, respectively. The armed forces under the Ministry of Defense are responsible for external security matters but maintain some domestic security responsibilities. The secular and sharia judicial systems operate in parallel. The sultan maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: forms of punishment that raise concerns about torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment–stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, and caning–included in newly implemented sections of sharia law, although the sharia court did not hand down any sentences imposing such punishment; caning of some individuals convicted under secular law; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; censorship and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although these laws were not enforced; and exploitation of foreign workers, including through forced labor.
There were no reports of official impunity or allegations of human rights abuses by government officials.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
Under the law and emergency powers, the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Expression: There is no provision for freedom of speech in the constitution or laws. Members of the LegCo may “speak their opinions freely” on behalf of citizens, but they are prohibited from using language or exhibiting behavior deemed “irresponsible, derogatory, scandalous, or injurious.” Under the law it is an offense to challenge the royal family’s authority. The law also makes it an offense to challenge “the standing or prominence of the national philosophy, the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept.” This philosophy identifies Islam as the state religion and monarchical rule as the sole form of government to uphold the rights and privileges of the Brunei Malay race. The law also criminalizes any act, matter, or word intended to promote “feelings of ill will or hostility” between classes of persons or “wound religious feelings.”
The SPC includes provisions barring contempt for or insult of the sultan, administration of sharia, or any law related to Islam. The SPC sections implemented in April provide, under certain circumstances, for death sentences for apostasy from Islam, deriding Islamic scriptures, and declaring oneself as god, among other offenses. There were no known cases of persons charged under these sections, but online criticism of the law was largely self-censored, and online newspapers did not permit comments or stories on these subjects.
In December a secular court judge convicted a former government employee in absentia for sedition based on social media comments posted in 2017 criticizing Ministry of Religious Affairs officials and halal policy. The court sentenced the man, who fled the country after pleading not guilty during initial trial hearings in 2018, to 18 months’ imprisonment.
All public musical or theatrical performances require prior approval by a censorship board composed of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The government interpreted the SPC to prohibit public celebration of religions other than Islam, including displaying Christmas decorations. Some establishments, however, openly sold Christmas decorations or advertised Christmas-themed events. Christmas remained an official national holiday.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law allows the government to close a newspaper without giving prior notice or showing cause. The law requires local newspapers to obtain operating licenses and prior government approval for hiring foreign editorial staff, journalists, and printers. The law also gives the government the right to bar distribution of foreign publications and requires distributors of foreign publications to obtain a government permit. Foreign newspapers generally were available. Internet versions of local and foreign media were generally available without censorship or blocking.
The government owned the only local television station. Three Malaysian television channels were also available, along with two satellite television services. Some content was subject to censorship based on theme or content, including religious content, but such censorship was not consistent.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides for prosecution of newspaper publishers, proprietors, or editors who publish anything with what the government deems seditious intent. Punishments include suspension of publication for a maximum of one year, a prohibition on publishers, printers, or editors from publishing, writing for, or editing any other newspaper, and the seizure of printing equipment. Persons convicted under the law also face a maximum fine of 5,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($3,690) and a maximum prison term of three years. Journalists deemed to have published or written “false and malicious” reports may be subject to fines or prison sentences. In the past, the government shuttered media outlets and reprimanded media companies for their portrayals of certain events and encouraged reporters to avoid covering controversial topics. There were no such reports during the year. The government maintained that most censorship was aimed at stopping violent content from entering the country.
The SPC prohibits publication or importation of publications giving instruction about Islam contrary to sharia. It also bars the distribution to Muslims or to persons with no religion of publications related to religions other than Islam. The SPC bars the publication, broadcast, or public expression of a list of words generally associated with Islam (such as Quran) in a non-Islamic context. The SPC also prohibits religious teaching without written approval. There were no reports of charges under these regulations.
Journalists commonly reported practicing self-censorship because of social pressure, reports of government interference, and legal and professional concerns.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law prohibits bringing into hatred or contempt or exciting disaffection against the sultan or the government. Persons convicted under the law face a fine of BND 5,000 ($3,690), a maximum of three years in prison, or both. There were no reports of such cases during the year.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited and restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The government generally respected the legal right to freedom of internal movement and the right to emigrate but imposed restrictions on foreign travel and repatriation.
Foreign Travel: Government employees, including both citizens and foreign residents working on a contractual basis, must apply for exit permits to travel abroad. Government guidelines state no government official may travel alone and unrelated male and female officers may not travel together, but the government enforced this policy inconsistently. The country’s tourist passports state the bearer may not travel to Israel.
Exile: By law the sultan may forcibly exile, permanently or temporarily, any person deemed a threat to the safety, peace, or welfare of the country. There have been no cases of banishment since the country became fully independent in 1984.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Citizens do not have the ability to choose their government. The sultan rules through hereditary birthright. While the country is a constitutional sultanate, in 1962 the ruler invoked an article of the constitution that allows him to assume emergency powers. The present sultan continued this practice and most recently renewed the state of emergency for an additional two-year period in a December 2018 proclamation.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively, although officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices.
Corruption: Although corruption was not pervasive, the sultan publicly criticized police, the military, and the immigration and labor departments for corrupt activities by some officials, among other shortcomings. In September the high court began a high-profile trial of two former judges indicted in July 2018 on 40 corruption-related charges, including money laundering and embezzling money from Brunei’s court system. The case was particularly noteworthy because the husband-and-wife pair were very well connected–one was the son of the minister of religious affairs and the other the daughter of a retired high-ranking military officer.
Financial Disclosure: Government officials are not subject to routine financial disclosure reports, but by law officials must declare their assets if they are the subject of an investigation. The government did not make these declarations public. The Anticorruption Bureau also issued a public warning to all government workers that it is empowered to investigate any official who maintains a standard of living above or disproportionate to his or her past or present emolument.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Neither domestic nor international human rights groups could operate freely due to government restrictions. No registered civil society organizations dealt directly with human rights, mostly due to self-censorship. A few domestic organizations worked on humanitarian issues, such as assistance for victims of domestic violence or provision of free legal counsel for indigent defendants. They generally operated with government support, and the government was somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, although they reported practicing self-censorship and avoiding sensitive issues. Regional and other international human rights organizations occasionally operated in the country but faced the same restrictions as all unregistered organizations.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, but it does not provide for collective bargaining and prohibits strikes. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against workers in connection with union activities, but it does not provide for reinstatement for dismissal related to union activity.
By law unions must register with the government under the same process and are subject to the same laws as other organizations (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). While the law permits the formation of trade-union federations for most professions, it forbids affiliation with international labor organizations unless the minister of home affairs and the ministry’s Department of Labor consent. The law requires officers of trade unions to be “bona fide” (without explanation), which has been interpreted to allow authorities broad discretion to reject officers and require that such officers have been employed in the trade for a minimum of two years.
Penalties for violating laws on unions include fines, imprisonment, or both. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations. The government did effectively enforce the law.
There were no active unions or worker organizations in the country. NGOs were involved in labor issues, such as wages, contracts, and working conditions. These NGOs largely operated openly in cooperation with relevant government agencies, but they reported avoiding confrontation with the government and engaged in self-censorship.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, although the government did not always effectively enforce the law, and forced labor occurred. Convictions for forced labor could lead to penalties including fines, imprisonment, and caning, but most cases alleging forced labor were settled out of court. Penalties were seldom applied and thus did not deter violations. In August the government enacted the Antitrafficking in Persons (TIP) Order of 2019 and a separate law, the Prevention of People Smuggling Order of 2019, covering human smuggling. The two laws replaced a single law covering both offenses and provided the legislative basis for formalizing the country’s interagency antitrafficking committee, among other steps to enhance the government’s efforts to combat TIP. The government subsequently formalized the interagency committee under the Prime Minister’s Office, from which it coordinated the government’s efforts to counter human trafficking.
The government did not effectively enforce the law against forced labor. The government did not investigate any cases of debt bondage or forced labor that were either compelled by threats of deportation or due to other circumstances, although these practices continued to occur. The heads of specialist trafficking units within the police department continued to meet regularly to coordinate antitrafficking policy and implement the national action plan to combat trafficking, including for forced labor.
Some of the approximately 100,000 foreign migrant workers in the country faced involuntary servitude, debt bondage, nonpayment of wages, passport confiscation, abusive employers, or confinement to the home. Although it is illegal for employers to withhold wages, some employers, notably of domestic and construction workers, did so to recoup labor-broker or recruitment fees or to compel continued service.
Although the government forbade wage deductions by employers to repay in-country agencies or sponsors and mandated that employees receive their full salaries, many migrant workers arrived in debt bondage to actors outside the country. Media reports indicated that widespread fraud in work-visa issuance made many migrant workers–particularly an estimated 20,000 Bangladeshi nationals working mostly in the construction industry–vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. Three local women were charged in November for providing false information to the Department of Immigration and National Registration (DINR) on foreign workers’ visa applications. The accused allegedly submitted applications for foreign workers claiming that the workers would have jobs with a specific company in Brunei, but the jobs did not actually exist. Under the law the charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and a fine of up to BND 30,000 ($22,000). During a surprise inspection of the immigration and labor departments in October, the sultan chastised officials for allowing widespread abuse of work-visa procedures and attributed these practices to laziness, lack of focus, and corruption, which he said “taint government management and administration.”
Although prohibited by law, retention of migrant workers’ travel documents by employers or agencies remained a common practice.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
Various laws prohibit the employment of children younger than 16. Parental consent and approval by the Labor Commission are required in order for those younger than 18 to work. Female workers younger than 18 may not work at night or on offshore oil platforms.
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The use, procuring, or offering of a child for the production of pornography or pornographic performances is not specifically prohibited. The law on procuring or offering children younger than 18 for prostitution or illicit intercourse refers only to girls and not to boys.
The Department of Labor, which is part of the Ministry of Home Affairs, effectively enforced child labor laws. Penalties for child labor violations include a fine, imprisonment, or both, and were sufficient to deter violations. There was no list of hazardous occupations prohibited for children. There is also no list of types of light work activities legal for children ages 14 to 16.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation. There is no law requiring equal pay for equal work. The law limits employment in certain government positions and the military based on ethnic origin (see section 6).
The law restricts women from serving in certain military combat roles, such as infantry. Reflecting government policy, most public and many private employers showed hiring biases against foreign workers, particularly in key sectors such as oil and gas. Some LGBTI job applicants faced discrimination and were often asked directly about their sexual identity. Many foreign workers had their wages established based on national origin, with those from certain foreign countries receiving lower wages than others.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law does not set a minimum wage for the private sector. Wages were set by contract between the employee and employer and were sometimes calculated based on national origin.
The standard work week for most government agencies and many private companies is Monday through Thursday and Saturday. The law provides for overtime in excess of 48 hours per week. The law also stipulates an employee may not work more than 72 hours of overtime per month. Government regulations establish and identify occupational health and safety standards. Individuals were encouraged to report violations of health and safety standards, but the law does not explicitly protect the right to remove oneself from a hazardous workplace.
The Department of Labor inspected working conditions both on a routine basis and in response to complaints. The number of labor inspectors in the department was adequate to conduct mandated inspections, but inspectors failed to enforce compliance effectively with some aspects of the law and failed to bring charges against some employers who violated the law. The focus was primarily on undocumented foreign workers rather than worker protection. The department has the power to terminate the licenses of abusive employers and revoke their foreign labor quotas, and it did so occasionally.
Employers who violate laws regarding conditions of service, including pay, working hours, leave, and holidays, may be fined for a first offense and, for further offenses, be fined, imprisoned, or both. Penalties for violations of wage, hour, and health and safety standards were not sufficient to deter violations.
The commissioner of the Department of Labor is responsible for protecting workers’ rights. Foreign laborers (predominantly Filipinos, Indonesians, and Bangladeshis) dominated most low-wage professions, such as domestic service, construction, maintenance, retail, and food service, in which violations of wage, overtime, and health and safety regulations most frequently occurred.
The government prosecuted some employers who employed undocumented foreign workers or did not properly process workers’ documents. When grievances cannot be resolved, regulations require employers to pay for the repatriation of foreign workers and all outstanding wages.
Government enforcement in sectors employing low-skilled labor in small-scale construction or maintenance projects was inadequate. This was especially true for foreign laborers at construction sites, where complaints of wage arrears, inadequate safety, and poor, unsafe living conditions were reported. The government did not sufficiently enforce laws on working hours.
Many employed citizens received good salaries with numerous allowances, but complaints about low wages were common, especially in entry-level positions. The government found that local employees in the private sector had an average monthly compensation of BND 2,260 ($1,670), compared with BND 1,570 ($1,160) for foreign workers. Wages for employed foreign residents varied widely.
There were some reports of industrial accidents during the year, most commonly in the construction sector, where the labor force was overwhelmingly foreign, and the oil and gas industry. According to the government’s Safety, Health and Environment National Authority (SHENA), there were five work-related fatalities during the year compared with eight in 2018.